Building Relationships With Citizens in the Digital Age

Lena Eisenstein
Governments and private businesses differ in many obvious ways, but one thing that local governments and businesses share undoubtedly is the goal to keep their customers happy. For businesses, the consumer is the paying customer but for municipal governments, consumers are of course the citizens. Keeping a close relationship with local residents and maintaining trust is crucial. Fortunately, with the tools available today, managing these relationships can be a smooth and painless process. The necessity of engaging with citizens lies in the desire to provide them better services.

Personal interaction between government employees and citizens has been and always will be a necessity. People genuinely enjoy face-to-face conversations. Employees must offer their best service to the public, know what to say, how to handle certain situations, etc. However, more of the population is communicating online and that offers an advantage. Small local governments are busy, usually fulfilling the tasks required from a larger government but with less staff. Website announcements, videos, social media, the iCompass Transparency Portal, and other online tools help to create positive digital relationships. People want timely information that they can access wherever they are. These tools help make our customers happy and foster a better government/citizen relationship.

Consistent Customer Experience Online and In Face-to-Face Interactions

First, what is it that governments are trying to accomplish by engaging with citizens? Why do we need transparency? Local governments want to educate their citizens and give them a chance to get involved in their community, either personally or online. Some innovative governments have taken extra steps into openly defining how all government staff interact with citizens in personal interactions.

All government employees are part of the complete customer experience. By educating people and engaging them, we are creating a new community of citizens who care about local government. The first step to creating these new communities is to alter our own perspective. Training all government employees to care about customer interaction is a simple and effective way to do just that. Public transportation, waste management and parks staff, to name a few examples, all count under the umbrella of those involved with customer interaction. On their Customer Service Policy, Mansfield, Connecticut lays out their commitment to customer service and that it applies to all employees, councilors, and contractors. Having a clear document or statement for all departments to follow regarding citizen engagement is a great place to start. The City of Seattle has created their own Customer Bill of Rights for all city employees to follow. This document is laid out for staff and made publicly available so it's clear what type of service people should expect when dealing with the city.

Connecting with citizens online is still a relatively new concept and one that's always changing. People want to be able to access information about their governments as easily as they can access all of the other information in their lives. Municipalities need to keep convenience in mind when designing websites and managing meetings. Citizens are paying customers. Just as customers expect a for-profit business to be easy to speak to, fast responding, and knowledgeable, taxpayers expect the same from their government. Working with citizens, engaging them in conversations and processes creates a positive perception.

Engage, Gather, Results, Repeat

Businesses understand the benefits of having someone in charge of making sure their customers are happy, and some larger governments have recently looked into the creation of the CCO (Chief Customer Officer) role to help maintain a healthy relationship with citizens. To understand if their civic engagement processes are effective, municipalities should engage in a simple four-step process: engage with citizens, gather data, produce results, then revise it and repeat the process. Of course, it's not always realistic for small local governments to employ a CCO, so building customer-relation processes and ideologies into your work culture would be an effective alternative.

Using the Right Tools for the Job

Governments are blessed with a plethora of unique tools and ways to communicate with citizens. The key is choosing the correct tool for the job. Social media is free, easy to use, and accepted by the general public, video recorded meetings are a great way to offer meeting information to citizens whenever they want it, and with the increasing use of mobile devices in North America, mobile apps are an innovative way to engage people.

311 lines are another fantastic way to connect with citizens in an 'online' sense with a personal touch. Since the first 311 city phone line debuted in New York, around 300 cities in the United States have implemented a non-emergency helpline for citizens. These calls come in with requests to the city regarding pothole repairs, schooling, city events, recycling, watering rules, and more. The government relies on the information given by the public to help clean the city and help make it safer.

Using social platforms are all a part of the process of creating a 'brand' for the city and helping your audience feel comfortable in engaging with you. 81% of Americans have social media accounts and access these accounts at least a few times a week. Social media is an especially effective tool in marketing local government projects, educating citizens about members and meetings, and can be a great tool to use for taking public polls and opinions into consideration. Understand your audience, and use each social media to engage with community members in the way that best suits each platform. For example, many people that are active with governments on social media are likely to be users of LinkedIn.

Mobile apps are showing promise for early adopters such as the city of Boston, who developed a mobile app called Citizens Connect. The app was designed as a sort of 311 hotline for citizens to report road problems, graffiti, or other issues handled by municipalities.

How iCompass, a Diligent brand, Helps Local Governments

Government websites can be the best tool to keep citizens educated and up-to-date on current local events. iCompass offers a transparency portal, a tool that seamlessly integrates with any government website and allows citizens to access government documentation in a similar way to Google Search. Citizens can easily search and read agenda minutes or any published government PDF document.

Another service also offered by iCompass, a Diligent brand, is Video Manager HD. This tool allows governments to live-stream and share recorded meeting videos in HD anywhere and on any device. These videos can be closed captioned and watched on any device.


Happy citizens are the pride and joy of local governments. Governments should treat their citizens like leading businesses treat consumers. The proper use of tools, social media, mobile apps, and other technologies can help citizens engage and care about their city. The 'customer experience' is an important focus in local government. With engagement, governments need to make the process for citizens seamless and effective.

For local governments, the best way to build trust is to serve citizens in the most convenient, scalable way. Examples municipalities like Mansfield and Seattle show that governments can work towards a common goal of customer service that applies to all employees and can offer a complete customer experience for the public. Engagement is a constant work in progress, where governments shouldn't strive for perfection but rather excellence.
Related Insights
Lena Eisenstein
Lena Eisenstein is a former Manager at Diligent. Her expertise in mission-driven organizations, including nonprofits, school boards and local governments, centers on how technology and modern governance best practices empower leaders at these organizations to serve their communities with efficiency and purpose.