LGiU report: Going where the eyeballs are: how email can connect councils with their communities

?We know that services are more effective when they are designed around the needs and priorities of local communities.

In tough economic times this becomes more important than ever but shrinking budgets put pressure on a government’s ability to conduct effective conversation with citizens.

To many people new web technology seems the ideal way to engage in more dialogue with communities in a way that is low cost, time-efficient and allows a two way (or indeed a multidirectional) relationship.

LGiU research, with the support of GovDelivery, has attempted to give some shape to what this approach means in practice for government and makes recommendations on how authorities can assess the ‘digital ecology’ of their communities they serve in order to construct the most effective digital communications strategies.

going where the eyeballs are

click on the image to download 'Going where the eyeballs are' for free

Overview

LGiU surveyed a total of 377 lead communications, democratic services and customer services officers from 245 UK councils. Participants were asked about four main areas

–       personal use of digital tools to receive information

–       current and future communication priorities

–       technological capabilities of the council

–       potential cost savings through increased use of digital communication channels.

It found that

– 20-30% believe that local government has got the internal skills, technology and/or training available to deal with a more ‘digital by default’ approach to service delivery

– Much communication policy is being made that goes against personal experience of using social media – just a quarter of participants use social media to receive news / information personally

– Residents just want information quickly and effectively – and in the vast majority of cases this is email – less than 1% of the population follow their council on Twitter

– In special and specific cases, social media is offering measurable results in terms of cutting down on cost and avoidable contact time – BwDWinter on Facebook saved 10,000 avoidable calls land nearly £8,000 last year

Our research shows that authorities can reduce communication costs whilst building a more effective and engaging communications strategy. But to do this they need to choose the right tools for the job.

Social media is fashionable and popular within councils, but may often be less appropriate for citizens than more ‘traditional’ tools such as email and text messages.

Council communications should be where the eyeballs are. They should be fitted around the spaces citizens are already using to network with each other and the institutions around them.

In practice, this looks like a fusion of transactional email notifications and social media.

To achieve the right balance, councils need to undertake work in three areas: First, understanding the problem to assess what action is required. Second, improving content, delivery and reach of existing information produced. Third, signposting to council services, external providers, voluntary and charitable organisers to equip people with the information they need.

This report suggests that councils offer residents a free opt-in personalised subscription platform. The service would allow subscribers to individually identify the information they receive from the council – and how they receive it.

In addition to this we recommend 14 areas of good practice that local authorities should consider adopting.

Understanding the problem

1 Conduct an audit of the local digital ‘ecosystem’ to discover who (people and businesses) are online and what communications channels they prefer.

2 Conduct an audit of digital use by council staff, both professionally and personally.

Improving content, delivery and reach

3 Open up the use of social media networks to all officers and elected members.

4 Designate a digital champion(s) who can run informal ‘surgery’ sessions with colleagues and promote collaboration and co-production with local residents and businesses.

5 Use services that allow residents to tailor the information they receive by opting-in to individual information channels.

6 Use multiple channels, integrated with social media.

7 Send updates at time-effective points.

8 Create content which can easily be shared and encourage the spread of key messages.

9 Offer easy feedback opportunities and space for comments and suggestions for improvements.

10 Show that you are listening and reply to comments.

11 Monitor local, citizen led websites for opportunities to assist the conversation.

Signposting to other services, both internal and external

12 Link all notifications to relevant pages on council website.

13 Highlight opportunities to engage on social networks.

14 Equip people with the information to help themselves.

Taken together, we believe these proposals would considerably improve the delivery and engagement of a council’s communications strategy.

Policy context

The revised publicity code has presented the opportunity for councils to look afresh at their communications strategy and, with particular reference to the demands of the Big Society agenda and today’s diverse media environment, develop a more proactive approach.

Councils are being encouraged to:

– explore their communications needs and ambitions – to promote the role and work of elected members, facilitate democratic debate and accountability, engender participation and engagement, and promote co-operation and partnership

– get better at exploiting the mechanisms by which to achieve those ends – not only with reference to the new code but especially to capitalise on web-based opportunities which escape the code’s limits to reduce unfair competition with the local press.

Much recent web momentum can play a strategic role in eroding traditional ways of doing things and enabling a new culture of communication.

Hyperlocal and community websites, geo-tagging and open, local data illustrate a ‘re-localisation’ of the web; much of the web’s momentum until now has been about the eradication of geography but these developments are about engaging people with place.

This presents unique opportunities for local authorities to transform their relationship with their communities whilst saving money at the same time.

Cutting down on costs and avoidable contact time

Digital technology can not only improve communication and design better services. It can save money. Directgov 2010 and Beyond: Revolution Not Evolution found that if just 30 per cent of services were provided online, savings of £1.3bn a year could be achieved.

The results in our research support the belief that online services can achieve significant savings for councils. Participants in the survey estimated that 15-25 per cent of an authority’s communications budget could be saved through a more digitally integrated communication strategy.

One of the main ways these savings can be achieved is through cutting down on avoidable contact time. Participants estimated that 15-35 per cent of contact could be avoided through a more proactive delivery of information through digital channels.

The report can be downloaded for free here

Comment

Email has been the essential social and business tool of the internet. Amazon goes to great lengths to personalise email messages to include recommendations based on each user’s individual profile. In the corporate sector, personalised email is working.

In considering how councils can make the biggest improvements in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of information delivery, Going where the eyeballs are advises authorities to use email alerts and newsletters that are opted-into by the resident. The figures on page 2 of the report show the massive potential savings this shift can bring. It is then through this relationship that councils can signpost residents towards more social engagement opportunities.

Local government should be both excited and optimistic about this transformation. Examples in the report from Dartford and Oakland show how well planned, user-focused strategies can have a large, measurable and positive impact in the community. And initiatives like BwDWinter and Manchester’s Leader’s Blog demonstrate that people want to engage with government through technology.

In closing, it is worth reiterating that digital democracy is not, or is not only, about technology.

We would argue that digital democracy is essentially about giving people better opportunities to take decisions and to shape the places they live in. This means giving citizens the chance to choose the information they receive, choose how they receive it and the opportunity to share it easily with their friends and family.

The means may be new, but the aspiration is as old as democracy itself.

Feedback

Rob will be presenting on the report at this year’s GovDelivery User Conference on Thurs, 10 November. Tickets are free and can be picked up here.

Comments and feedback are very much appreciated. Please do get in touch with me on 020 7554 2855 / 07825 746388 or rob.dale@lgiu.org.uk or Jonathan Carr-West on 020 7554 2800 or jonathan.carr-west@lgiu.org.uk.

Or get us on Twitter at @robandale and @joncarrwest.