Most states have standardized on a call center model to help answer their citizens’ questions about everything from vehicle regulations to aid programs to special events of local interest. It seems like a fairly easy process, with citizens simply picking up the phone and asking for help. Yet for many younger people of the millennial generation, trying to get information that way is about as old fashioned as adjusting rabbit ears to tune in a baseball game on AM radio. They simply won’t do it, and as they begin to make up a larger and larger part of the population, state and local governments will need to adjust.
A recent study conducted by The Governing Institute on behalf of Verint’s Contact Solutions company shows just how wide the communications gap between states and young people has become, and suggests a few ways to begin to overcome it.
Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of the study was the fact that it’s not just millennials who are feeling disenfranchised by their state’s reliance on older technology. “We have a lot of research around the adoption of digital engagement technology, and especially around mobile you see a high rate of adoption among millennials, but in the last few years that wave has swelled well beyond just them,” said Director of Marketing for Contact Solutions John Hibel. “The millennials are certainly the largest percentage of the working population using digital technology now, but it’s swelled to virtually every generation, up to 65 and above.”
According to the study, the gap forms because of what services and methods of communication citizens expect to find when dealing with their state governments, often the same type of services they find when dealing with private companies, and the reality of whatever older technology is offered.
Hibel says that when someone wants to contact a private company, their first thought is normally not centered around some type of 1970s-era call center with limited hours, and waiting in line for a real person to talk. “Now there is an expectation that you could email them, pick up the phone or text them,” he said. “You could put a message out on Twitter and expect them to notice and respond. People expect Web chat to be available; they ought to be able to message someone from their mobile device, and heck, why not just go straight to them from Facebook?”
Most states in the survey did not have robust communications options beyond their call centers. But, a majority did want to improve.
“There seemed to be a really good self-awareness among the state respondents of the problems that they were facing in the sense that they knew they didn’t have access to all of the information they needed to serve the callers,” Hibel said. “And they knew that they didn’t offer all of the channels that citizens would naturally want to use to get in touch with them.”
Of the state IT and program managers who responded, just 36 percent said their state government leveraged social media. Only 22 percent used mobile technology and apps. And only 5 percent had any programs where the state could text with citizens.
For many states, it may not be enough to just add new communications channels. They also need to find or train workers who can manage them. That may be especially difficult for states with aging workforces. “The state agencies, the program administrators, the CIOs and IT leaders are not just looking at what preferences people like when messaging, they also have to look at how to staff and resource that,” said Contact Solutions Manager of Engagement Marketing Andrea Katsivelis. “They’re definitely looking at both the back end and the front end from that perspective. So, it’s a big challenge.”
Given those challenges, Hibel said the best path for most states would probably be slowly adding new digital features, while keeping the traditional channels in place as backup.
“The good news is that states don’t have to do all of this at once. They can take it piece by piece and start to tackle some of the issues in priority order,” he said. “You don’t have to rip everything out at once just to put in something new. To summarize how states could do it: first add support for digital channels while making connections to databases so they’re able to spread knowledge around the internal organization easier. Then upgrade the skill set in the contacts center by giving people the training that they need to handle different channels.” And eventually, open those new channels to the public.
States might not need to upgrade their communication channels right away, but the survey showed that there already is a significant part of the population that feels disconnected from their state governments. Those numbers will only increase as millennials continue to grow up and become fully engaged members of their communities. The states that act now, even in small ways, can probably save a lot of scrambling down the road trying to serve a disenfranchised constituency.