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Commentary: Engagement requires more than just adopting smart devices

The latest communications technology is giving local, state and federal government agencies opportunities to be more connected and engaged than ever with the public. Smart devices, unified communications and social media are transforming the way businesses interact with customers, and public sector entities that fail to leverage these technologies risk alienating huge segments of the population, especially people accustomed to being constantly connected and having easy access to information.

A recent worldwide survey by Kaiser Associates, a global market research firm based in the United States, revealed that 80 percent of public sector agencies globally allow the use of personal mobile devices on their networks. However, only 13 percent of these agencies actively support such devices through their IT organizations.  

The proliferation of smartphones and other devices means citizens are very connected. They expect to be able to contact government agencies at any time and from anywhere, whether it’s to ask questions, report emergencies or conduct transactions. And they expect to be able to use any device, whether it’s a laptop, smartphone or tablet computer, across any network with any media, including voice, email, text, video or social sites.

Whether they like it or not, local, state and federal governments must be prepared to deal with these changing expectations. That means being ready to handle calls, conduct interactions and provide information to citizens when they need it and how they want it.

This trend toward always-on engagement or anytime-anyplace connectivity will only grow more prevalent as the younger generation becomes old enough to vote. They will expect the government to support advanced communications capabilities, and if they’re not happy, they’ll express this at the voting booth or on the streets.

Improving Customer Service

A key resource for improved engagement is the contact center. The Kaiser survey also shows that more than 50 percent of public sector agencies globally will invest in a contact enter. To be truly successful, these government agencies will need to implement multi-channel contact centers that can handle not just traditional voice calls but also social media such as Facebook, Twitter, texting and blogs.

Agencies will also need to deploy communications-enabled business processes that allow their contact center agents to become “resolution agents,” able to quickly and effectively address complaints, concerns or queries from citizens. And they’ll need to implement real-time collaboration capabilities that match callers with subject-matter experts within the government, who can resolve their problems using tools such as chat, video and Web-based collaboration.

The latest unified communications systems can give agencies a wealth of collaboration capabilities, enabling them to interact with citizens more efficiently than ever.

Some government agencies around the world are already leveraging technology to be better engaged. As part of a drive to modernize local services, West Berkshire District Council in the U.K. is moving more of its interaction with citizens to dedicated customer service centers.

To improve telephone and Internet-based services to citizens, the council has used a combination of voice-based telecommunications and a separate data network. This infrastructure was backed up by customer relationship management software that captured data from calls and online transactions. However, customer service teams still lacked the ability to help the council drive service performance further.

The council implemented a contact center platform that enables Customer Services to handle voice calls and emails more efficiently. It’s speeding up call handling and increasing the proportion of inquiries that are resolved after a single contact. The product enables call options to be pre-determined depending on which service areas are experiencing high demand, with calls routed to appropriately skilled staff.

The platform allows the council to more closely match resources to needs, resulting in improved monitoring and more effective staff utilization. It also lets Customer Services respond to demand peaks by increasing staff during those times. The contact center allows the council to provide a much higher quality of service to its citizens.

The town of Enfield, Conn., took a similar approach to improving citizen services. The town had an outmoded telecom system and needed to reduce operational costs, so officials implemented a unified communications solution to better serve its workforce, government offices, public safety departments and school system. The project provided enhanced messaging, caller ID, and system-administration capabilities.

With the new technology, the town has improved interagency communications and is able to track system usage to better control communications expenses. New voice messaging options allow users to receive phone messages via email as well as a voice portal. Police communications have improved along with auditing and collaboration.

Indeed, being better engaged with the citizenry through new communications technology can deliver a multitude of benefits to governments, including cost savings, increased efficiency and improved service.

For example, citizens can report problems or events -- a broken street light, a water main break -- to authorities from their devices as soon as they happen.

This can save local governments from having to rely solely on busy public safety units and emergency crews to identify such incidents, speeding the process of making repairs or resolving problems.

Government authorities also can leverage smart devices and email or social media to proactively deliver alerts to citizens. In places where utilities are delivered by the government as a public service, agencies can quickly notify citizens about power or fuel outages. Where the government oversees healthcare, health agencies can send out appointment reminders.

Government agencies face some challenges as they support this new communications environment. For one thing, they need to safeguard data, particularly sensitive information such as patient records. This means using technologies such as encryption for stored and transmitted data, access controls and identity management.

Agencies will also need to train workers, such as contact center representatives, in how to use these new tools.

But the potential benefits of better engagement far outweigh the challenges. Clearly, for government entities worldwide to be able to serve the needs of citizens today and in the future, they will need to embrace these new technologies.

Paul Lang is senior vice president for global market segments and voice of the customer programs at Siemens Enterprise Communications.

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