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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

How asynchronous communications can help agencies elevate crisis response

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like hitting a massive reset button. Understanding and communicating the most up-to-date information is literally saving lives, but as government agencies scramble to report to their constituencies, it is clear there are some flaws in the system.

Essential state organizations like departments of health are finding they simply can’t keep up with the flood of communications. Phone lines are jammed, messages are left unanswered, residents are frustrated and employees are stressed.

Local governments must do better when it comes to crisis response. As the first line of defense, IT leaders can help agencies implement flexible asynchronous communications – conversations that take place intermittently, like texting, rather than in a steady stream, like a phone call – through an online messaging platform. That type of system can help agencies handle hundreds of conversations a day and free up phone lines for more critical calls.

Reflecting on my company’s recent experience working with the Utah Department of Health to set up a messaging system to addresses its incoming COVID-19 related inquiries, here are a few key steps local governments can take to prepare for the next crisis:

Reach out to citizens using the methods they want to use

Now, more than ever before, governments are expected to be connected and focused on citizen service. With more people contacting local government through their mobile devices, agencies must do better at interacting with their constituents using the mobile platforms they prefer to use.

Online messaging platforms that enable asynchronous communication like texting and web chat are convenient, reach constituents where they want to be reached and can allow agencies to connect quickly during emergencies. Leading messaging product platforms are typically inexpensive to implement and effective in helping agencies scale to meet emergencies with increased bandwidth, allowing teams to do more with fewer resources.

Even under normal circumstances, asynchronous tools are ideal for call deflection at high-volume  periods, enabling one  staff member to hold multiple simultaneous conversations. That capability allows agencies that have greater customer service demands like the motor vehicle departments, transit agencies and community services organizations to reduce the pressure on their phone lines.

Create training and messaging to overcome the challenges of adoption

Implementing a new process at a government agency can take a while. Days and hours matter in a crisis and can literally be the difference between life and death, which is why it is crucial for whatever text-based solution to be easy to scale to an entire workforce when needed.

Fortunately, agencies don’t need to reinvent their communications from the ground up. IT teams have several powerful, cost-effective platforms to choose from that will help get the process started. With the right partner, introducing a new online feature like web chat can take just a few minutes – simply inserting a line of code into an existing site -- instead of weeks upon weeks of development.

The next challenge is training the communications staff, another area where previously-built tools will drastically simplify the process. Features like dashboards that show all message threads at a glance are powerful tools for those who will actually provide the essential information and services. Mobile apps are also crucial when responding to emergency situations. How often in the past several months would local health agency workers have preferred to respond to urgent requests through an app on their devices?

Finally, the public must embrace the new tools for the benefits to be realized -- faster responses for constituents and reduced resource requirements for agencies. Getting the word out (via social channels, email, etc.) about the new communication channels will encourage broad use, as will with clear, actionable messaging and easy-to-identify visuals on an agency’s homepage.

Prepare for the next emergency

The COVID-19 pandemic is still the top priority for many government agencies, but it’s crucial to keep an eye on the future as the situation evolves and as other crises may occur. To avoid precious time being lost when the next emergency arises, agencies should work to deploy new communication tools now.

A recent study of mobile users conducted by Facebook found that over 58% of people felt more confident messaging a business than calling on the phone. The same is clearly true in regard to individuals interacting with local government. The time to adopt asynchronous communication tools is now.

Mobile communications are both the present and the future of citizen service, and getting them up and running does not need to take weeks or months. Optimizing websites and providing more robust asynchronous communication solutions for the devices people constantly carry will bring government agencies closer to the people.

About the Author

Eric Rea is co-founder and CEO of Podium.

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