The Changing Face of Citizen Engagement

On Thursday 10th September, Martin TaylorDeputy CEO and Head of Public Sector for Content Guru, met virtually with Simon GunnelOperational Manager for Sheffield City Council, to deliver a webinar on the changing face of citizen engagement in the public sector.

Coronavirus has turned the world of citizen communications on its head. However, the pandemic has merely been a catalyst for changes that were already on the horizon for many organizations. In both the public and private sectors, side-lined schemes to allow employees to work from home, or to open up new digital communication channels, suddenly became life-or-death issues in the face of COVID-19.

Sheffield City Council is one of the largest local authorities in the UK. Providing approximately 550 services to its 518,000+ residents, Sheffield employs over 8,000 staff, based across hundreds of different worksites. The council receives over 6 million resident calls a year, 2 million of which are processed through its central contact center. Simon, who has worked for Sheffield City Council for 15 years, noted how the sudden move to homeworking dramatically complicated collaboration between the council’s various teams, a theme that resonated with the audience.

Time to go home

Before the webinar began, Content Guru asked attendees to take a survey about their organization’s response to the coronavirus crisis. Over half of the public sector participants marked ‘managing multiple communications channels whilst working from home’ as the pandemic’s greatest professional challenge. ‘The immediate need to implement homeworking’ came in second place with 28% of the audience’s vote. Addressing these results, Martin commented that both of these issues can be resolved by moving to a cloud-based system for citizen engagement. A cloud Contact Centre as a Service (CCaaS) solution allows an organization to immediately scale up their services to handle spikes in demand. It can also enable the unification of all communication channels into a single interface. This interface can be accessed from any internet-enabled device, enabling agents to work from home without upheaval.

Head in the clouds

For organizations that don’t have the flexibility of cloud, the disruption of Coronavirus is set to continue into the foreseeable future, with staggered lockdowns on the horizon. When the Coronavirus pandemic hit the UK, Sheffield City Council was already in the process of streamlining its IT equipment to facilitate homeworking, as well as moving to a cloud-based CX solution with the help of Content Guru. These changes allowed the council to deftly dodge the considerable upheaval that many other public sector organizations faced during the crisis. A cloud-based system also gave Sheffield the ability to provision new services rapidly, and adapt its front-line citizen communications quickly to last-minute government changes, all whilst staff were working from home.

The drive for digital

During the webinar, the audience were asked to complete a survey on the tools they found most useful in handling the Coronavirus pandemic. With a landslide victory, 79% of participants voted for ‘digital communication channels’. Handling citizen contacts through digital channels can play a huge role in reducing queue wait times, and opening up the possibility for automation and self-service. 25% of Sheffield City Council’s citizen communications are carried out via its live online presence, the development of which was a major part of the council’s 2020 CX strategy. Through its automated online service, Sheffield are able to receive and field applications for business grants, and requests for community care packages, as well as push out proactive messaging to citizens. Martin noted that, with the implementation of a chatbot, organizations can entirely automate many relatively complex questions, allowing time-conscious citizens to have their queries resolved rapidly.

Making the first move

Making proactive contact with citizens can vastly reduce call wait times. Martin mentioned that, when Content Guru implemented proactive SMS messaging for clients in the electricity sector, the number of calls coming into their contact center dropped by an astonishing 50%. This functionality is now more important than ever for public sector organizations. Due to the pandemic, many local authorities have suddenly found that their list of vulnerable citizens has grown to staggering proportions. Ensuring that these citizens continue to receive priority service requires intelligent contact routing, advanced CRM functionality, and targeted proactive outreach tools. Simon commented on how Content Guru has helped Sheffield City Council to transition away from a legacy, on-premise CRM solution, to a new, cloud-based CRM functionality. The integration of this advanced citizen knowledge management and CRM tool into Sheffield’s communications estate was completed during lockdown, and allows Sheffield to ensure that they can provide vulnerable citizens with the care they need.

Embracing a post-pandemic world

Martin asserted that, as consumers, citizens, and employees, our communications expectations have evolved. As professionals, those that have enjoyed the improved work-life balance offered by pandemic-induced homeworking will not be willing to return to an office-based 9 to 5. Enabling flexible homeworking in the long term will allow organizations to hang on to their best people. As consumers, citizens have become used to the exceptionally high standards of customer service provided to us by leading private sector companies. These same standards and now being applied to public sector organizations, from whom citizens expect immediate service, on any channel, at any time. The public sector must adapt their CX offerings to meet these demands, and implement technology that will allow them to keep up. Over the next few months, Sheffield City Council will be leading this charge by piloting a new Natural Language Processing (NLP) deployment. This form of AI will allow Sheffield to automate voice-based enquiries, without the jarringly-artificial cog-whirring of an IVR.

During the webinar, attendees were asked which AI innovation they would be most interested in implementing in their CX estate. The results were relatively evenly split. Chatbots took the lead with 44% of the vote, NLP came in a close second with 39%, whilst on-demand video consultation functionality finished last with 17%. Artificial Intelligence is the future of citizen engagement, and its applications are varied.

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