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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

How to communicate with constituents using digital channels

In recent years, email and text messages have become a preferred means of daily communication for business, consumers and the general public. For many government agencies, however, digital communication is still a pipe dream.

Relying on printed letters and phone calls for collections, for example, results in high costs and marginal returns for government agencies. Offering constituent-friendly channels including email and text would help alleviate these issues, but confusion and uncertainty around federal and state requirements for electronic signatures abound.

Despite the complexity and risks associated with using email and text for collection purposes, digital communication is the future for government agencies. Automated technology can greatly simplify compliance and the collection process itself, but it is important agencies understand their legal obligations. Here’s what collections managers need to know to stay compliant.

Consider the type of contact information provided

The first thing to keep in mind when contacting constituents for collection purposes is the type of information on file. If constituents provided a work email address or mobile phone number, these channels might not be fully under their control. As a result, people who have changed jobs might not receive the emails. Equally important, if the employer monitors emails or text messages, third-party disclosure is a real possibility.

To prevent these issues, always ask for personal contact information, as this minimizes the number of work accounts agencies can use for collection purposes. If personal contact information cannot be obtained, make sure the terms and conditions are detailed enough to require notification of any changes to work-related contact information

Take a prudent approach to text messaging

Many industry groups have developed digital communication guidelines, but the Cellular Telephone and Internet Association’s guidelines are among the most important, and its messaging principles are designed to protect the public interest.

Some key points addressed by CTIA:

  • Make sure constituents agree to terms and conditions upfront.
  • Keep language simple and straightforward.
  • Tread carefully with abbreviations; if an acronym could be perceived as inflammatory, avoid using it.

While CTIA’s principles aren’t legally binding and agencies can’t be sued for violating them, it’s important to comply with them so agency texting practices align with constituent and carrier expectations. Failure to do so increases the risk the CTIA or the carriers will block agency text messages permanently.

Obtain e-signature consent as required

E-signature consent can be a tricky subject for government agencies and third-party collectors alike. Although it’s not required for emailing or texting a consumer about fines, tickets, taxes or collection-related topics such as balance inquiries, payment receipts and statements, agencies must obtain a constituent’s consent before delivering legally required written documentation by electronic means. Legally required documents include copies of recurring electronic funds transfer authorizations, post-dated payment reminders and any court orders or disclosures governmental bodies are required to provide in writing.

It’s also important to note that e-signature consent takes effect only after constituents have consented to use email or text and demonstrated they are able to use that particular channel. 

Embrace the digital future of government collections

For agencies eager to step into electronic communications to improve constituent engagement, their foremost considerations should be how well they’re serving constituents and how effectively they manage compliance.

While developing an email and texting program, agencies should work with the county attorney, state attorney general’s office or outside legal counsel to ensure the program meets federal and state requirements, CTIA guidelines and constituent expectations and needs. Once the right communications platform is working seamlessly as part of day-to-day operations, agencies can free up valuable staff time and maximize their human and financial resources.

About the Author

Rozanne Andersen is VP and chief compliance officer at Ontario Systems.

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