We know that Vladimir Putin is not your model for listening… but, we also know that it’s often tough to figure out how, or where, to start the conversation with the people you serve. It’s feels more effective to control the channels of communication, and it is difficult to accept that we actually don’t control very much when we do that – we are usually just missing out on a big part of the narrative that is happening externally.

The advent of the consumer internet had massive impact on how people began interacting with just about everything: products, brands, businesses, and even their communities. Perception and sentiment are not only relevant to private sector brands and companies. They are just as relevant, and, arguably, more important in the public sector. Many of us do not like to think of municipal work as “marketing” or “branding” but cities and towns need to attract trendsetters and tastemakers, just as private businesses do: to continue to progress and grow.

The Old Ways Are Dead

Or, at least, are dying. There is still great need for pure market research, but spending months (and tens of thousands of dollars) on efforts that produce data that is already SOD (stale on delivery) is not the most elegant use of public funds. Consumers today have limited time and patience for long-form surveys, especially if they are not highly incentivized. The sample sizes end up being small, which in turn, means that the extrapolation of that data can miss reality by quite a wide margin. And, trying to capture feedback only where direct interaction happens is of limited value, at best (you do not want survey data only collected at the DMV and the courthouse to be the basis for what all citizens think of the job you are doing!).

Just as citizens find their time extremely limited in modern-day America, municipalities face the same challenges – for the same reasons: Too many tasks and not enough resources. Technology has been wonderful in many respects, but it’s also created new areas that require our attention. Time, financial, and human resources rarely keep pace with technological advances. The private sector has, generally, been better able to leverage technology to help them limit costs and/or grow revenues. The public sector is slower to implement new solutions that can help them in the same ways. Oftentimes, this is not due to lack of knowledge or interest, but because of the restraints that are in place within the overarching government systems. It is not a bug, but a feature.

Collecting consistent small data that can be consumed in real-time allows you to have a constant connection to your customers, and respond to even small fluctuations in their perceptions of your service. Over time, the trends identified will be invaluable in short- and long-term planning and prioritization. The tools exist today to allow municipalities, of all sizes, to quickly and affordably implement new systems and processes and stay connected with citizens and employees.

Bottled Or Tap; It’s All About Trust

Whether it is delivered by a truck labeled Coke or Pepsi, or through city infrastructure, products live or die based on trust. A news report about twenty people getting sick after drinking a private brand of water can have an impact on stock prices, and number of units moved. But, with the right marketing campaign (and enough marketing dollars), these setbacks are almost always temporary. Cities and towns, on the other hand, can spend years and years trying to recover from one bad news cycle. Understanding how your brand is perceived today and connecting with citizens on a personal level, let you prioritize your short-term planning and shore up areas of greatest concern. A brand that is already suffering from low trust levels, will have to invest much more time, effort, and money to recover from a negative event. Not understanding the reality of how you are perceived today can have dire consequences in the future.

The same principle holds true in all municipal areas: Police and Emergency Services, Parks and Recreation, Communications, Transportation. Your city or town is your brand, and every department can have an impact on your customers’ perception and sentiment of that brand. Consumer communication tools are many – and almost everyone uses at least one of the big ones: Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, NextDoor, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google, FourSquare, Yelp!. Of course, even if you’ve invested in human or digital sentries to pay attention to the most popular platforms, municipalities also have to worry about sites like BringFido, Areavibes, Livability, BestPlaces, AllTrails, and a host of travel-related sites that are trying daily to define what your city or town is. It can get overwhelming quickly. (Trust me, I know! I’ll tell you the MuniVision history if you are interested!)

The best way to truly understand what your customers think of the job you are doing is to find out directly. Do not disregard the data from third-party/public websites, of course, but weight each input appropriately and take care to ensure that any actions that you are taking, or goals that you are setting, tie directly to your overarching mission statement.

Your Customers And Employees Are Your Best Resources

It is not only necessary to listen, but they also need to know that they are being heard. Communication is necessary, but conversations are more valuable. Oftentimes, in the public sector, sides feel like they are talking to themselves. Both sides disseminate important information, but both sides are frustrated that they are not being listened to. Public hearings and team meetings aren’t always the best forums for people to state their case, either. There’s a reason that an organization like ToastMasters is so popular – the vast majority of us dislike public speaking. Glossophobia is estimated to affect 3 in 4 people, and that means that a lot of smart people are not sharing thoughts, ideas, and input that could be highly valuable to your decision-making. This is a massive loss that doesn’t show up on the books, and not only affects the organizations providing public services, but entire communities.

Simplicity is the key to engagement. Just as simple, targeted surveying can deliver highly valuable data, and at much higher response rates, giving your teams and customers simple tools to communicate their thoughts – and know that they are being heard – can deliver massive ROI. You do not need to re-invent the wheel, either. Tools exist that are affordable, simple to implement, and can begin to provide value to your teams and organization almost immediately. Engaging your current resources and letting them know that they are being listened to, builds trust, loyalty, and a sense of ownership in the organization and community. I meet with municipalities regularly and am taken aback, at times, at the amount of ideation that is outsourced to individuals and organizations from outside the immediate area. There are, of course, times where this is necessary, but I have always been a believer in including current resources, as much as possible, before seeking outside support.

Understand, Plan, And Execute

Once you get beyond the fear of what your customers might be thinking of you, and begin to receive and embrace honest feedback, you will find that having an ongoing conversation with your staff and customers is valuable, often entertaining, and a necessity for success. You will wonder why you didn’t start sooner, and will focus on how you can do it even better going forward. In the public space, we often think that we are lacking in resources to deliver the kind of service we know is possible – and, I do not want to minimize the resource challenges that are faced day-in and day-out. But, in our experience, we’ve found that with a few simple-to-use tools, proper active listening and conversing, and unbiased data-driven prioritization and planning, we can deliver much more than we thought was possible, given the resources available.

Whether you decide to become a MuniVision customer, use different third-party tools and services, or go it on your own, please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can help in any way. We learn every day through our conversations with the public sector, and want to see every city and town be successful – as they define it.

Why Municipalities Need To Understand And Embrace Listening