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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Engagement, accessibility, cybersecurity top local government priorities

If you asked a ballroom full of government leaders what keeps them up at night, what do you think they would say?  According to our latest "What’s Next in Digital Communications for Local Government" survey results, expanding citizen engagement, increasing digital accessibility and minimizing cybersecurity risks top their to-do lists.

Nearly 370 municipal and county government officials across North America participated in the December 2017 survey to assess the current state of digital communications in local government and project future trends.

Topping the list of priorities for 2018 is citizen engagement, with two-thirds of survey respondents planning to invest in technology to increase digital connections with their customers. It’s the second year in a row that “expand citizen engagement” was cited as the top priority for the next 12 months.

Moreover, 80 percent of the local leaders said they plan to invest in social media tools this year. As one survey participant noted, “social media is one of the biggest channels where citizen engagement happens.”

At a time when social media consumption is at an all-time high, it’s not surprising that local government leaders are realizing the impact digital engagement can have in creating positive relationships with citizens and improving customer experience. Over the four years of our "What’s Next" surveys, we’ve seen social media rise from third to first place among rankings of the most effective communications channels for local government.

Second on the list of 2018 priorities is accessibility, which addresses the ability of a website, mobile application or electronic document to be easily navigated and understood by a wide range of users, including those who have visual, auditory, motor or cognitive disabilities. Web accessibility was cited by 53 percent of survey participants as a 2018 priority, up from 22 percent last year. This clearly reflects local government’s increasing awareness of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines deadline that passed on Jan. 18. Ten percent of the public officials surveyed, however, said their agency websites still do not meet current standards for digital accessibility, while 66 percent said their websites were only “somewhat in compliance.”

Cybersecurity also was top of mind for this year’s survey respondents, coming in as the third most frequently mentioned priority at 41 percent. When asked to rank external forces that will have the most significant impact on local agency communications this year, cybersecurity threats topped the list of concerns.

Biggest challenges for 2018

Community engagement is both a priority and a challenge for local government leaders this year. Nearly half of survey respondents cited “limited community engagement” as the biggest challenge for their websites in 2018, followed by “difficult to navigate” (41 percent) and “website does not meet accessibility standards” (29 percent).

It’s clear that local agencies are well aware of the rising expectations of their increasingly digital and mobile citizens who now demand the same level of accessibility, security and efficiency they enjoy in the private sector. Netflix, Amazon and Uber have set a high bar for digital interaction that government agencies often find hard to reach.

Most effective channels of local government communications

Local agencies recognize the key role their websites play in meeting the digital demands of diverse populations, with nearly 91 percent of respondents rating their websites as “very important” or “extremely important” to overall communications and engagement strategies -- a response that has remained above 90 percent in each of the past four years.

Websites ranked second, behind social media, as the most effective channel of communications available to government agencies. When asked how easy it is for community members to find information on their websites, however, less than 9 percent said it was “extremely easy.” The remainder of respondents said their websites had room for improvement in the area of “findability” of web content.

The good news is more than half of the local government leaders we surveyed plan to invest time and money in updating and improving their websites in 2018.

When it comes to mobile-ready websites, a topic brought into sharp focus by the new Connected Government Act that requires all federal agencies ensure their websites are mobile friendly, local governments seem to be ahead of the federal curve. Just 25 percent of survey participants cited “responsive design” as a priority for 2018, down from 35 percent four years ago, which suggests that many more local government websites are now mobile-ready.

Thanks to the explosion and availability of affordable digital technologies, proactive agencies are poised to drive significant change in the way they interact with their communities. They will do this by leveraging social media, video, mobile messaging and other tools to communicate with citizens in a way that is more engaging, interactive and personalized than ever before.

About the Author

David Nachman is general manager of content management solutions for Vision, a Granicus company.

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