Connecting state and local government leaders
But the specific type of access that residents prefer—in-person visits, phone calls, or digital—depends on where they live and how old they are.
More than half of residents are satisfied with their ability to access local government services, but younger residents are far more likely to want to see changes, according to a recent survey.
Satisfaction varies greatly by age group, dropping below 50% for people aged 23-54 and to less than one in three for residents between the ages of 18 and 22. That suggests that governments will need to work to improve outreach and accessibility for younger generations, says the report, titled “What Citizens Want.”
“Local government caters well towards Baby Boomers and seniors. We’ve had over 50 years to adjust to their preferences, after all,” says the report by Rock Solid Technologies, Engaging Local Government Leaders, and Government Technology’s Center for Digital Government. “But younger generations are more digital-savvy, and even digital-native. This won’t be a surprise to many people, but many of the challenges in local government access relate to this disconnect.”
The report, released this month, details the results of a nationwide survey of 2,042 adults conducted in October. The survey touched on preferences and accessibility of 15 different local government services, including libraries, public health, pothole and street repair requests, courts, government meetings and planning and zoning. The goal, organizers said, was to understand residents’ preferences for and opinions on the local government services that cater to their needs, specifically during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which provides “a boom of options for connectivity.”
“We were excited about this research because it focused on community members, versus just asking local governments what they did,” said Kirsten Wyatt, executive director of Engaging Local Government Leaders, a membership organization for employees and officials at all levels of local government. “To us, it got to the heart of what communities wanted—not just what governments were providing.”
Satisfaction with accessibility varied by age group, but those demographics had preferences in common as well, the survey found. For example, 60% of survey respondents preferred multiple methods of communicating with local government services. Phone calls and in-person visits are the two preferred methods, but 62% of respondents also want the option to request services and find information online via a smartphone, tablet or computer.
“People today want to engage in multiple and varied ways,” the report says. “Local government should be ready to serve.”
Those preferences differ from place to place, with people in smaller cities generally preferring in-person services more than residents in larger urban areas. Only 38% of respondents in cities with populations greater than 3 million people prefer to access services in person, compared to 55% of people in cities with populations of 25,000 or less.
“More people accessing similar services means longer wait times, which is more likely to occur in areas with larger populations,” the report said. “So what do residents of large cities prefer instead? Text messages. This method sees sharp growth dependent upon population...over 20% of residents in cities over 3 million prefer it.”
The survey also asked respondents to rank the services they would most prefer to access online, either by smartphone, tablet or computer. Researchers then aggregated the top answers based on several metrics, including total usage, method of access and dissatisfaction with existing services, to give local governments a guide to prioritization.
Pothole and street repair requests took the top spot, followed by 311 service/information requests, city and county government meetings, building permits and recreation programs. Most are already well-suited for digitization, particularly the most-popular request, the report said.
“The transactional nature of pothole and street repair requests lends itself well to digital access,” it said. “Instead of taking time to visit a public works office or wait on hold, citizens could report issues with just a few inputs via website, app, or even text message. Ease of use and time saved make this service an attractive prospect for digital access.”
Meeting the needs of different citizen groups is an ongoing challenge, the report concludes. Governments should analyze the needs of their specific communities by soliciting feedback and reviewing current infrastructure, which “may reveal a clear starting point.” But providing multiple access options—what the report dubs “omnichannel” communication—will likely be a universal first step.
“Different people have different preferences, and the number of options has increased,” it says. “The more omnichannel your agencies can be, the better you can meet the needs of not just older citizens, but younger generations as well.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.