Conversation starters wanted

This blog post was authored by Tony Newling, Senior Director, Government Public Sector, Microsoft Asia

City leaders, we need to talk.

Specifically, we need to talk more with citizens. A recent Microsoft survey showed that cities must provide residents with more information and understand their concerns.

We found that 80% of city residents from Delhi to Tokyo think that using technology would “significantly improve” the provision of information to residents about city services, while 79% agreed that it would improve “communications between the people and the city”.

It was striking that these findings came from a mix of cities, with Sydney citizens just as keen for more information as those in Beijing and Bangkok. This isn’t a commentary on their current performance – instead it reflects increasing expectations and citizens’ desire for greater interaction.

To achieve this, governments must continue to change their organisational culture and become more engaging. City Mayors can lead the way, including listening strategies in their overall communication plans, including social media.

In Singapore, for instance, Government leaders are increasingly using social media to create a digital conversation around key moments and issues. Equally, City Mayors in Indonesia are looking to use this to great effect, combining it with videos of impromptu meetings, civic moments, and new ideas they would like to communicate.

To incorporate its residents in planning, Brisbane, Australia has involved a cross-section of its population in a large consultation process to build the Brisbane Vision 2031 – a long-term community plan for the city. (Image: ChameleonsEye /
To incorporate its residents in planning, Brisbane, Australia has involved a cross-section of its population in a large consultation process to build the Brisbane Vision 2031 – a long-term community plan for the city. (Image: ChameleonsEye /

Governments have long been focused on how to incorporate Citizens and residents in planning.  For example, Brisbane recently involved a cross-section of its population in a large consultation process to build the Brisbane Vision 2031. In efforts such as this, there is opportunity to extend the use of digital and social technologies, allowing a wider range of user feedback to be built into the process.

Digital engagement can also be on daily issues, especially when it comes to daily inconveniences that can be easily resolved.  London’s Love Clean Streets allows citizens to flag problems such as potholes and abandoned trolleys from their Smartphones, an idea that is gaining rapid adoption around the world, from Singapore to Sidoarjo to Hyderabad.

Barcelona is perhaps the best in this area, because it combines real time social media data with other physical information. When large events occur in the city, they will monitor social media to see if there are complaints about transport options or traffic jams. They can combine this with GPS feeds from buses, re-routing if there is congestion or if there is a significant crowd build-up.They can take data from across the spectrum of government, including transport, utilities and even refuse. If citizens are complaining that bins in a certain place are full, they’ll send a squad out to tackle the problem.

Social media and dedicated feedback apps help governments gather data that show citizen concerns and improve public services. Singapore’s OneService app sends data across government, flagging issues in real time and building a picture of issues.

Image Source
The One Service app in Singapore (Image)

These tools also cement stronger relationships between governments and the people they serve. Citizens want to be heard, and technology has created the potential for a whole new town hall experience. It opens channels that can magnify the role of government and allows others to co-create services.

For example, Love Clean Streets in London was built by citizens to create new channels to highlight civic issues. It lets people report local environment problems, and passes these onto government – without relying on public funding. Meanwhile, a recent hackathon in Sidoarjo, Indonesia saw students build an app that would automatically track potholes for government by using smartphone GPS and motion sensors.

The Love Clean Streets map at work

Students can use their skills and enthusiasm to create new feedback mechanisms. But technology should not be seen purely as something for the young. There is a big opportunity to provide information to an older generation, especially given ageing demographics in much of the world.

We are pioneering schemes that use chat bots to help government reach out. Traditional digital services can seem off putting for some, while a chat bot allows people to interact online in a human manner. The tool also works particularly well for those with accessibility challenges, such as hearing and visually impaired people.

We have just announced an experiment to try chatbots to interface with some Singapore Government services. Singapore is a country with four official languages and a diverse population, with a need for frictionless communication across all of its communities. We believe bots can be put to the challenge, and can help communicate informally in many different languages.

For example, a Mandarin-speaking citizen could find out about regulations on keeping dogs in public housing, and apply for the relevant permit in the same interaction. They wouldn’t need to click through multiple pages on a website or search for it online. The bot would provide the information in a more intuitive manner.

We believe this “conversational approach” has great promise for reducing the seams between people and Government, in both developed markets and emerging, and across a broad community.  Ultimately, we believe the technology can create greater accessibility for public service users no matter where they are, what language they speak, and what economic resources they have.

For every city government, there are opportunities to improve engagement. It is a never-ending process, with unlimited rewards. Key steps for those beginning the journey are to start a social media office, understand what’s being said about public services, and devise a strategy to engage with citizens and gather feedback data.

Technology like Skype, Dynamics 365 with social listening, tools like Cortana Analytics and platforms like Azure have radically brought down the cost of engaging online and understanding feedback data. The only limitation is the culture in government. Public servants must continue to embrace the potential of technology, even going out of their comfort zone when necessary.

As the old phrase goes: talk is cheap – and thanks to technology, it’s getting cheaper. But ultimately, actions matter.

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