Citizens have an ongoing relationship with their local governments. Thomas Jefferson said, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” Within their relationships, local government staff and officials need to be mindful that those they serve are taxpayers, citizens, and customers. Government decision-making and involving the public is a process, not a single event. It gives citizens an opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

At the same time, citizens also have a responsibility to their local government. They have a responsibility to elect good representatives, to be informed, to pay their taxes, to offer their opinions, and to support their elected officials.

Focusing on Interactions and Relationships with the Public

The federal government took the first big leap to take a stand on governmental bodies and their constituents when President Clinton took the lead on the first customer service initiative in 1993. The stand was based on Vice President’s National Performance Review and it called on federal agencies to put citizens first just as companies put their customers first. The charge called on federal agencies to develop a customer-driven government with service guarantees that rival the private sector. Three agencies stepped out initially with standards and programs. By 1997, over 570 departments and agencies also developed standards and programs to improve customer service.

Local government staff and elected officials should always be mindful that those they serve have three separate roles as citizens, customers, and partners. Within those roles, it’s important to provide them with opportunities to provide input and be kept informed. Consider the importance of considering which role they’re playing when they ask questions, offer input, or give guidance. Do you know what their expectations of your public are in their role as citizens? As partners? As customers? With every interaction, it’s important to consider whether your response is appropriate from their perspective.

The customer service role is the most common interaction that you’ll have with your citizens. You have an ongoing opportunity to practice good customer service when customers make visits to pay their utility bills or when they call or email to ask questions. Some opportunities such as applying for a permit may be the only chance you get to provide good customer service.

What Your Local Government Can Do to be More Customer-Centric

Your citizens are getting acclimated to doing most everything online. That means the first place they’re going to look for information they need from their local government is your website. Your website should serve as a library of information for them and be interactive to respond more quickly to their needs and inquiries. Community by Diligent is a customer-centric website software solution that’s user-friendly and intuitive for staff and citizens and provides full-system support.

From a practical standpoint, many local governments are now offering mobile apps for cell phones and tablets to accommodate busy people on the go. Many people use their cell phones for almost every transaction, and they’ve given up their computers entirely.

Another valuable use of technology is to invest in a customer relationship management system (CRM) where you can more easily manage a database of important information on your citizens.

Regardless of what processes and systems you employ, it’s important not to overlook the benefits of setting standards and tracking standards around customer service. To borrow an idea from corporations, you could even link your employees’ efforts to their performance appraisals.

In addition to being citizens, the members of your community also serve as your partners. As your partners, they can be of great assistance to you when you define the type of help that you need, simplify the process, and reach out to the community with a specific plan. Some suggestions for local government and community partnerships include establishing a community watch, setting up volunteers for events, providing books for children, hosting a food or clothing drive, or organizing a holiday event for needy families.

Public contributions set up a win/win situation for citizens, the local government, and the community-at-large. Some degree of shared decision-making is necessary for meaningful citizen engagement. By taking a proactive approach and engaging the full range of stakeholders involving decisions, you will ensure transparency, accountability fairness, and legitimacy in the outcome.

The goal here isn’t to deliver what the general public asks for. The goal is to gather input from a wide range of stakeholder views so that decisions reflect fair treatment and social inclusion for all people regardless of race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, and income. Local government officials and staff must present a balanced view among these views and reflect them back so the public gains an understanding of the many viewpoints that were considered before decisions were rendered.

Partnerships are the most productive when local governments offer multiple opportunities for engagement and they use multiple techniques to reach them. It’s also pertinent to think through any budget restrictions or other boundaries of citizen involvement in policy service or participation initiatives.

Public participation also results in better governance which automatically translates to better outcomes. By taking a thoughtful approach to public participation, you can expect more comprehensive, meaningful, and complete information because it provides you with the necessary facts, values, and perspectives that you can only obtain through public input. All of this information can be used to make the best possible decisions for the entire community. Once you’ve made decisions and implemented them, you can expect them to be sustainable and upheld because they’ve taken the needs and interests of all stakeholders into consideration including the needs of people with disabilities, those who are vulnerable, and those who tend to be marginalized. Your stakeholders will better understand your decisions and be more greatly invested in the outcomes.

It’s a dependable means for ensuring that local government decisions are legitimate which means that they’ll also be less likely to be challenged. A united approach to planning and strategizing will help communities to develop the capacity to solve challenging issues and overcome differences for now and the future.