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Offering council services online is becoming a significant part of how councils operate. The challenge now though is finding the right balance between online services and human interaction. Too little or too much of either can result in a decrease in the level of community engagement. A high level of community engagement, however, can help local government empower and unify the community, including even those who feel or are sometimes overlooked.
There are five points councils should consider when deciding on services which balance digital vs human interaction:
Online digital services allow communities to access information and services 24/7, not only in their own home but also on-the-go on their own devices. This can save people time travelling to the council and waiting in a queue to be seen. For many, digital is the easiest and preferred method of communication for both the community and the council.
New technology can be intimidating or difficult to learn for some members of the community for a range of reasons. This may increase the time it takes for groups to adopt it. With support and guidance, and increased access, members of the community can be empowered to learn new technology and begin to trust their own abilities when using it.
Technology is not without its controversy. Any new story in the media about data leaks understandably makes users warier about entering their information into systems. For councils to deliver services online, they need to know who they are delivering to. This means they need to access customers personal information. While some services can be anonymous, others need user authentication. This may alienate people who would prefer face-to-face interaction to avoid submitting personal identifiers (PID) or information into another online system, including those who may struggle with new technology or those who suffer from any form of anxiety.
A beautifully designed website or app is great to look at but it needs to be intuitive to use. The customer needs to be able to figure out how to use it easily, on their own, with no instructions needed. Several techniques are used to ensure a great design is achieved but the most important is research. Knowing how customers want to interact with you will inform your structure, analysis, and optimisation of the customer journey.
With the introduction of digital services, councils may find customer satisfaction increases as it can now deliver faster services to the community. New digital services may also help councils achieve their key performance indicators (KPIs) and greater cost efficiency. Cost savings in any sector is often associated with a decline in customer service levels but the reverse can and should be true for councils. Greater cost savings are more likely to persuade a council to increase its digital services.
Councils need to balance serving the needs of the community within the scope of the digital services they implement. Digital services should ideally benefit the whole community, and there are already some great examples of this with online library services
The balance between a full and complete online digital service and keeping some of the human interaction is key to establishing community needs. Not only should the council consult with the community, but they will need to find out what the customer journey, for the community, consists of. Identifying what is important to the community, what is the council trying to achieve, and where are the interaction points the council needs to deliver are all very important. By working with a customer-centric design approach, councils can be confident they are keeping the community at the forefront of any decisions they make.
With an online presence, the community can perform what they previously would have done in person, or most likely with a phone call, in a much more effective and efficient way while all the time knowing they can speak to someone if they do need help. This process would then be consistent, automated, repeatable, and integrated, allowing council staff to shift to higher-value tasks which deliver a greater benefit back to the community.
With the right balance, councils can continue to increase their engagement levels with the community, while also reducing the cost to achieve it. Now it is up to councils to identify how they can serve both their own needs and strengthen community engagement.