Prioritising citizens’ needs amidst the chaos

By Sarah Richards | 09 November 2020

From adapting their content to switching service delivery methods – councils have had to react quicker than ever before this year to meet the needs of citizens digitally. They’ve done a phenomenal job under immense pressure.  With an important role to play in how the ongoing pandemic is managed as we enter a second round of national restrictions, successful communications with citizens are crucial when it comes to getting the response just right.

Councils are perfectly placed to meet the needs of their citizens. There is a lot of focus on their role as ‘place-shapers’ and how their proximity to the communities they serve gives them a unique understanding of what local people need. But nonetheless it’s easy for those needs to get lost in the hurry to push information out into the public domain – especially in the midst of a crisis. What can councils carry forward from communicating through coronavirus so far that will help ensure that citizen needs are prioritised and met?

Focus on what’s new and actionable

The COVID-19 situation is changing on a minute by minute basis as councils grapple with how to manage rising infections and now the move to put England under a four-week period of lockdown. Guidance needs to be kept up to date, but updates can be overlooked if added to existing information. One central government department issued 94 updates to their guidance in one week, but failed to highlight what was new – so the user had to work hard to find what was important.

Citizens are fatigued and overwhelmed with information, and their reading behaviour can change from hour to hour. They don’t need to know the background – just what is happening right now. It’s a simple fix, but make sure that the relevant information is upfront and stands out.

Be bold and purposeful

The best examples of successful digital communications are those that speak directly to the people they are intended for. Doncaster Council does a great job of this on its social media channels with hyper-local content which resonates with people and is shareable so that it reaches a wider audience. It is great to see this kind of openness and trust instilled in council digital teams so that they feel empowered to be bold.

Taking time to map out citizen needs, which in the context of a pandemic are many, is also imperative and should inform how all content is designed. To support councils and other public sector organisations, we started a global coronavirus-based user needs project, collating needs and making them available to anyone who needs them, so that everyone benefits. Seeing things from the perspective of citizens will bring out the all-important human side in every piece of content created. Designing content so that it is fit for purpose in this way will also lead to efficiencies in the long run for councils which are having to be mindful of every penny spent.

Many local authorities understandably found themselves ‘panic publishing’ in a race to get information out quickly as the pandemic took hold. Inevitably, this content now needs updating - but it’s a challenge to find the time. These communicating clearly guidelines will help local authority digital teams develop a strong strategy which will result in less, but more valuable and successful content being developed. It’s about understanding what you are doing with every piece of content you put up – and less really is more.

Track engagement to measure success

Local councils need to focus right now on getting their user journey maps in place and the user needs off the back of them. This will inform which channels should be used, what to tell people and how. Messaging and language should be simple and consistent – two or three messages which direct people to your website and social channels.

On the website, advise citizens of the restrictions and what it means for them, and keep it up to date, making sure the time and date are clearly visible. Liverpool City Council is doing this really well, and cleverly pushes people to GOV.UK which will help reduce the overheads on keeping information up to date.

Move away from old metrics like heat maps and time spent on page and put engagement at the heart of the success criteria. From follows, likes and shares on social media to how citizens are interacting with more traditional channels like the call centre – tracking this engagement reveals a lot about how well councils are meeting the needs of their citizens. It can also help local authority digital teams build on the great work they’ve been doing, elevating their COVID-19 content and communications to the next level.

Sarah Richards is the founder of Content Design London, and previously led the Government Digital Service’s content strategy

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