Council communications must reflect the needs and wishes of very diverse community members. Patricia Moore finds they span everything from radio announcements to Timaru District Council’s ‘chatbot with personality’, Tim.
With communication platforms rapidly becoming an essential business tool, local bodies are faced with a plethora of solutions enabling efficient and effective communication with both staff and stakeholders. Making the right decision comes from understanding how the various platforms work then sourcing those which provide the greatest flexibility and ease of use.
“The big challenge is around councils closely connecting with communities,” says Mark Matijevic, director, Datacom local government. “It’s about moving beyond the three Rs of rates, rubbish and roads, and moving towards delivering services that bring communities together and facilitate their development.”
At Squiz NZ, managing director Patrick Fitzgerald sees council communications evolving as they shift to digital service delivery. “Behind this again are the wider developments in automation and connectedness, the changing cost eqSquiz NZuation, and changing customer expectations.”
The drivers playing out here also apply in Australia, North America and the UK, he says.
“Far from being superseded by new technologies, council websites have gained importance as hubs for digital service delivery, customer service and communications, and local democracy. This makes choice of web content management systems a critical part of an effective overall digital system.
“Council intranets will extend and join up the features that are present today, albeit in a siloed and inconsistent manner, into a whole-of-council business management system,” says Patrick.
“Innovative products in this space include Squiz Digital Workplace, a quick-to-deploy intranet with advanced features ready to be plumbed into virtually any council environment.
“While the tech environment is so fast moving on so many fronts that it’s hard to keep pace, it’s helpful to think in terms of advances in automation and connectedness as the key enablers.”
Handling simple customer service enquiries is already being automated. At Timaru District Council a chatbot with personality is the latest addition to the customer services team. ‘Tim’ is on call 24/7 to answer the most common queries from customers, says the council’s customer services manager Grant Hamel.
“Tim keeps it simple, answering the most-asked questions and, with customer services monitoring usage via an analytics dashboard, we can tune his repertoire as necessary.”
Datacom’s Mark Matijevic says technology platforms help a council collect big data, understand, and use it via dashboards. “For example, the number of service requests and how long they’ve been open, or how many days, on average, it’s taking development consents to be finalised and approved.”
He says feeds drawn from social media allow councils to better understand the mood of the community. “By using the information collected together in dashboards, councils can make more informed decisions.”
New products, such as Datacom’s Antenno, enable communities to get relevant information at the right time, and solve problems around social media being inundated with too many messages, says Mark.
“Antenno uses geospatial information ensuring councils send information that’s precise and targeted.” Customer relationship management (CRM) services that allow councils to collect more information about the people in the community are another new area he says.
“If councils have a better understanding of what interests people, they are better able to provide appropriate services.”
Get Home Safe is a solution where the name says it all; an app enabling council staff to share what they’re doing in real time, and confirm they’re okay, during, and at the completion of a shift, task or journey. Director, and founder, Boyd Peacock says it’s a flexible solution offering team / supervisor configurations that’s reducing human error and checking the safety of staff.
“Councils are using Get Home Safe (GHS) to replace traditional methods like phoning or texting.” This eliminates the need for someone at a desk to record and keep track of what’s happening in the field.
“Supervisors are alerted when something needs their attention; if everything is going according to plan they can focus on their own work. GHS also provides a comprehensive set of records which they can drill down into and run reports.”
Boyd says during a recent Greater Wellington Regional Council erosion-control planting project involving a combination of helicopters, vehicles and foot access, GHS provided real-time location information for the whole team. “Supervisors really appreciate the fact that they get the location of the team, not just the location of their vehicles.”
Meanwhile, Graham McKerracher, communications and marketing manager at Dunedin City Council, reports that digital technologies are enabling local government to work more efficiently and reduce paper work reports.
“Data is being shared in a safe and secure way to make better decisions and deliver better outcomes as well as to support transparency.”
However Graham warns it’s important to remember the public’s move to online and electronic channels is not as fast as perhaps envisaged. “This was highlighted by the feedback we received from many residents after our flood in July which told us they gained a lot of information via radio broadcast.
“As a sector we have to acknowledge there are parts of the population where uptake or access to electronic information is low and, as a local government communicator, it’s important to cover all communication channels.”
With consumers spending so much time online, Graham says it makes sense for councils to take advantage of the technology. “It can change the way we communicate and has spin-offs for the environment.”
In 2016 Dunedin City Council replaced its printed staff newsletter which Graham says, “was resource heavy and time consuming to produce”, with the web-based multi-media Hail platform which lets users create mobile-responsive content that can be presented on different platforms without having to reformat text, photos and videos every time.
Council staffers can run as much or as little content as they wish, extend their deadlines, edit up to the last minute and, by using the optional security feature, there are no concerns around sensitive content.
Mark adds that adoption of technology in the local government sector may not be as far advanced as in other sectors, but that’s changing. And, he says, developments are enabling intuitive connection to other software, meaning services and information can be consumed from any provider. “Technology is the hero.”
• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in the November 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.