Improving Citizen Engagement is Local Government's Top To-Do in 2017
Guest columnist Ashley Fruechting of Vision discusses why content strategy is key to improving citizen engagement on civic digital properties.
City and county government leaders across North America are well aware of the demands of today’s mobile citizens. But living up to those expectations for timely, relevant and personal interaction is not just a challenge... it’s a responsibility. More than 97 percent of the 435 local government leaders who participated in our 2017 “What’s Next in Digital Communications for Local Government” survey agree.
That’s the number who said they believe they have a responsibility to keep pace with ever-changing technology. The positive response to this forward-looking survey question has trended upward each year -- from 94 percent in 2015 and 95 percent in 2016. So what will drive local government’s digital interaction with citizens in 2017 and beyond? In the three years Vision has commissioned this survey, results have shown a dramatic shift from an internal staff focus to one centered on the citizen experience.
The majority of local leaders in our survey identified “expand citizen engagement” as their top priority for 2017. While they clearly recognize their responsibility to engage citizens, it’s equally apparent that many have obstacles to overcome in order to reach that goal. “The information highway is changing all the time,” said an economic development official in Texas. “We have the responsibility to provide information quickly, but it’s hard to do without up-to-date software applications.” Only 5 percent of survey respondents rated their agencies “outstanding” in effective citizen engagement, while 18 percent said they were “below average” or “poor.” In fact, respondents overwhelmingly cited “limited citizen engagement” as the top issue with their current websites. “Our first responsibility is to serve the public, and increasingly the public is choosing to be served through the technology around them,” said a management analyst in Michigan.
To help community engagement take off, local leaders should involve their communities in the website design process and make sure that messages are consistent across all platforms. They can begin by asking residents for opinions on small, everyday issues and providing feedback on how resident input impacts decisions. In addition, creating local blogs and videos will make local stories more interesting and help spark increased interaction.
Effective Community Engagement Begins with a Well-Designed, Citizen-centric Website
For the past three years, the majority of local government respondents have consistently described their agency website as “integral to their overall communications and public service strategy.” This year, over 93 percent responded that it was either “essential” or “important.” However, the number of respondents who rated their agency’s website as “highly effective” showed a notable drop in 2017– to 26 percent from 34 percent in both 2015 and 2016.
Why? In comments, many respondents said their sites are difficult to navigate or not mobile ready. A finance officer in Michigan noted, “Our website information doesn’t easily show up on a cell phone; a computer works better, but I think it isn’t the most used tool by citizens.” And a computer services director in New York commented, “The overall quality of the user experience is minimal. Newer technologies are developed to provide better services in a better way - this can and should be used for the benefit of our constituency.” The good news? Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of our survey respondents predict their local gov websites will be highly effective in 5 years. So what can local leaders do to get started? They can explore low-cost ways to analyze usability, like Google Analytics and user surveys, and continually refine their websites based on this feedback. The most effective websites are organized to reflect the needs of residents, rather than the internal structure of government.
Content Strategy is Key
Creating a website that allows citizens to do government business online, remains a challenge for many local government leaders. While only 8 percent gave their website an “outstanding” rating in this area, that’s double the number recorded in our 2016 survey. So progress is being made. At the other end of the spectrum, 16 percent of respondents said their website was “below average” or “poor,” while just over three-quarters (76%) said their website was “average” or “good” in delivering online services.
A community development director from Oklahoma wrote, “The website appears to a viewer to be outdated, as if not given much attention by the community. This can cause outside investors looking at the community to become dissatisfied.” Overcoming this challenge requires an effective content strategy focused on clear, succinct and actionable information. Tips for ensuring success include training content contributors to write effectively for the web. This means eliminating legalese and presenting information in plain language that can easily be understood.
Cybersecurity Concerns on the Rise
Another area keeping local government leaders up at night is cybersecurity. “Minimize cybersecurity risks” was cited as the second highest priority for local government leaders in 2017. “Security is a huge concern,” said a communications manager in Washington State. “Open-source software doesn't cut it anymore. We might as well have a huge target on our foreheads. If we do not keep up with the rapid pace of updates, we become vulnerable. Proprietary software will vastly improve our security profile.”
State and local governments are especially vulnerable to cyber attacks and other security breaches. According to Accenture’s 2016 Cybersecurity Report government organizations rank at the bottom of all industries in terms of security. To increase cybersecurity on the local level, agencies need to stay current on the potential risks and threats. They should have clear policies covering data breach notification, disaster recovery, IT service continuity, remote access, employee departure and acceptable use.
Web Accessibility Knowledge Gaps Remain
With new rules on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website compliance expected in 2018, a serious knowledge gap continues to exist among local government leaders. Nearly 9 out of 10 (87%) of Vision’s survey respondents said they have moderate, weak or no knowledge of government web accessibility requirements. Despite nearly 20 years of laws governing digital accessibility, this is only a 2 percent improvement over last year. “It’s our duty to communicate with all audiences,” said a communications coordinator from Iowa. “Too many departments, too much information to have to make easily accessible,” noted a senior advisor in Policy & Communications from Utah.
How can citizens access the Internet if they have difficulty seeing a computer screen, strain to hear sound, or struggle to use a keyboard? Accessibility should be built into websites from the ground-up. The newest accessibility guidelines require processes, functionality and content deliverables not currently provided by many agencies and their existing websites. Design styles that work well for assistive readers need to be chosen, and the tools must be used in a particular way to provide content that is user friendly.
To help local government officials make online services accessible to citizens with disabilities, Vision Internet has developed a Digital Accessibility Checklist. While local government leaders continue to grapple with internal and external challenges that prevent them from being as effective and transparent as today’s technology allows, the opportunities and tools to increase satisfaction, build trust and foster engagement are greater than ever. The good news from this year’s Vision survey is that local government leaders are increasingly aware of what needs to be done to improve citizen engagement and are moving in the right direction.