Public Sector Constituent Engagement
As a private citizen and consumer, we cannot help but to personally experience how technology has changed our lives in the past decade. Though not true in the year 2000, we now fully expect email notifications from suppliers and vendors, the ability to carry out transactions on-line, simplified transactions whether over the internet or in person, and immediate documented confirmations. As government executives, we can’t help but to realize that the expectations and experiences that spring from the private sector, including our own, have forced us to step up our game. Granted, we don’t have competition like business does, but we can no longer stand by the notion that the public will take what its given by government. The bar has been raised and we must rise to the challenge.
This sentiment was on clear display in a December 2007 study by Adobe Systems, titled The Engaged Constituent: Meeting the Challenge of Engagement in the Public Sector. Adobe surveyed 376 government executives to examine the recent drive in the public sector for greater engagement of constituents, and how those activities differ from that in the business realm. It should come as no surprise that a large majority of government executives state that constituent engagement is important to their agency’s success. 54 percent believed engagement is crucial to the fulfillment of the agency mission, and another 29 percent stated it was fairly important.
Also coming as no surprise, most of the government executives were also aware of the new technological opportunities available to enhance services, build stronger relationships, and achieve more responsive dialogues. The primary strategy and information systems tool to achieve these newfound capabilities is Constituent Relationship Management (CRM); the robust systems that are fueling the largest growth area in government IT projects today. While the private sector embraced the technology wholeheartedly over the last 10 years, it has been only in the last five years that the public sector has seen the intrinsic value and begun purchasing it aggressively. Indeed, today government accounts for 6 percent of the CRM market and that figure is expanding fast.
Adobe’s survey also outlines that while executives are aware of technologies, few government agencies have taken full advantage of the opportunities. Government leaders recognize that there is room for improvement in engaging their customers, as only 25 percent stated a belief that their agency was deeply engaged with its constituents. Interestingly, the leaders also felt that the costs of disengagement were very high with 58 percent believing that the cost amounted to more than 5 percent of their annualized budget. However, they did not rank cost savings as the biggest motivation for more engagement. Differing with the private sector who looked for increased revenue as the top motivator, the government executives said that the greatest gains from more engagement would be transparency, accountability, faster processing times and increased use of services.
The survey further suggests that perhaps this is governments’ decade to shine in the customer service spotlight. According to Adobe, many agencies are currently implementing technical solutions such as CRM software as a way to increase their constituent engagement, and more plan to follow suit in the next five years. While 77 percent provide information on-line, 45 percent offer customized communications, and 53 percent solicit feedback through interactive venues. Within five years 41 percent plan to upgrade data tracking, 39 percent desire to integrate their services to make them easier to use, and 28 percent seek to offer a more consistent and predictable experience. Chuck Schaeffer, CEO of Aplicor, Inc., a major player in the government CRM realm, noted that his company’s government sales were not only capturing these capabilities, but were going much further. "The agencies we are working with have taken it to the next level by using some of the more business-oriented functions like marketing and case management. Some of our government customers anticipate their clients’ needs and provide the information or promote the service before the constituent has to ask."
Adobe’s study notes that despite their awareness of the critical need for constituent engagement, most government sponsors have been unable to translate that into effective action. This major reason cited for this was perceived problems in measuring levels of engagement, but also funding, competing priorities and lack of project management and technical skills. The study also highlights that misguided perceptions about technology are an impediment, for instance, that CRM software adoption is a silver bullet that can succeed without executive sponsorship and a larger plan for process restructuring.
In its conclusion, Adobe says that the first obstacle to be overcome in seeking further constituent engagement is to learn more about the available technologies. To overcome the "performance gap" in engagement activities that exists between the public and private sectors, government executives should learn more about the nature of technologies, including the potential and limitations, as well as generally accepted best practices in developing IT solutions, such as Constituent Relationship Management systems. The private sector has raised the bar for government operations and relationship management, and according to the study, now is the time to act.