Top tips for winning the hearts and minds of citizens

Focus on budgets and gaining efficiencies is set to continue in the immediate future for the majority of the public sector. While gratifying ever more demanding citizens with innovative and digital services shows no sign of abating.

Getting the approach right with citizens has its own set of challenges. People are leading increasingly busy lives – so an appeal from their local council, for example, can easily get lost amid the clutter. Citizens also increasingly want to deal with government on their own terms – Vodafone’s recent “Connected Nation” report found that 76% want to manage their dealings with government completely, or mostly, via digital channels. Public sector organisations therefore need to provide citizens the opportunity to interact via the channel(s) of their choice – online, mobile, social as well as face to face – at their time of need. Lastly, and perhaps most worryingly, trust in Government appears to be decreasing – dropping from 47% in 2013 to 42% in 2014 according to research from Edelman – ranking lower than both the Private and Voluntary sectors.

The good thing, though, is that today’s technology provides some exciting opportunities for government to have more meaningful relationships with the people they serve. Here are several tips to consider to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of their constituents’:

1.     Be open and transparent

The contract between some government agencies and their constituents needs to evolve. Services may need to be delivered differently. Citizens themselves may need to take more ownership of their communities. Norfolk County Council recognised this and has, publicly and explicitly, initiated a new conversation about their public services and how the roles of the council, citizens and 3rd sector partners need to be redefined given the challenges they council faces.

 2.     Use data to understand citizen behaviour and needs

You can better target your messages and use the most appropriate channels by building a clearer picture of citizens served – who they are, how they behave and what they need. One example of using data to build understanding is the Bundesagentur für Arbeit (German Federal Labour Agency). They analysed their huge amount of historical data on its unemployed workers, developing a segmentation for the agency to tailor its interventions. This process, along with other initiatives applied over three years, allowed the agency to reduce its spending by €10 billion annually at the same time as cutting the amount of time that unemployed workers took to find employment, and increasing the satisfaction among users of its services.

3.     Involve citizens to shape your policy

When constituents contribute to policy development and programmes; not only do they take ownership but they really buy in to the resulting services. Denmark’s cross government innovation unit, MindLab, engages businesses and citizens to develop new public sector solutions to problems in employment, education and government services. And in Australia, Melbourne City Council used a collaborative Wiki platform to engage citizens in the creation of the 10-yr Future Melbourne Community Plan. The Wiki was so popular that there were 30,000 unique pages viewed over a four-day period.

4.     Talk to citizens on the platforms that they’re using

The true power of social media and mobile lies in their potential to have real conversations – in turn building a community who talks to each other and government (who, by the way, can end up spreading your message for you).  For example, Boston’s Office for New Urban Merchanics created “Citizen Connect”, a mobile app that residents can use to report nonemergency issues by sending photos and messages to the relevant person at City Hall. Two and a half million neighbourhood problems have been reported, leading to 70,000 improvements. Citizens have gained a renewed sense that government works because they are more involved with a part of it.

One of the greatest tests now for public sector moving forward will be their ability to truly make an impact on society and the lives of their citizens. The good news is that there are a number new technologies – from “big data” to social networks – to help develop a deeper understanding of and bond with constituents. To win this will require moving beyond simply ‘digitising’ services and towards a culture of winning the hearts and minds of both the people within public sector and the citizens that they serve.