Serving citizens through the power of your digital brand

Nike spent $2.7 billion in marketing initiatives last year. They believed the investment in marketing would drive consumer engagement and loyalty, and they were right. According to Interbrand, Nike ranks 22nd in the 2014 Best Global Brands survey, largely due to their marketing and branding efforts. The top 100 list is packed with well-known consumer brands such as Apple, GE, Disney, and Coca-Cola. Each of these brands has a laser focus on building and maintaining...

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Nike spent $2.7 billion in marketing initiatives last year. They believed the investment in marketing would drive consumer engagement and loyalty, and they were right. According to Interbrand, Nike ranks 22nd in the 2014 Best Global Brands survey, largely due to their marketing and branding efforts. The top 100 list is packed with well-known consumer brands such as Apple, GE, Disney, and Coca-Cola. Each of these brands has a laser focus on building and maintaining a strong brand identity, both online and off.

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Todd Akers, vice president of public sector at Acquia

Through trial-and-error, these consumer brands have built an arsenal of best practices from which the public sector can learn, and agencies are already employing these lessons and pushing digital best practices ahead. Digital branding efforts are quickly moving beyond commercial businesses and into cities, states, and federal agencies. While the strategies employed may be slightly different, the desired outcome is the same: building a trusted brand designed to better engage customers, or in this case, citizens.

In the case of large corporations, driving engagement leads to profits. In the public sector, the driving need for engaging citizens is to serve them better and make government run more efficiently for all. To do so, agencies must forge a new relationship with citizens and meet lofty expectations set by the private sector.

Establish trust

At the heart of government branding strategies lays trust. When Nikhil Deshpande of the Georgia Technology Authority went to redesign Georgia.gov, this was key to his digital strategy.
“With thousands of sites and many malicious entities floating around the Web, it is critical for governments to develop an official brand to establish recognition and user trust. So Georgia launched a cohesive digital platform that creates a digital brand across agencies and Web properties,” Deshpande said in an interview published in “Trending: Digital Branding in Government,” a white paper from the Center for Digital Government.

Consumer brands like Nike and Apple have perfected this approach and developed a consistent look and feel across all of their digital properties. Following in their footsteps, the state of Georgia has done the same. Today, a citizen can go to any one of the Georgia.gov Web properties and know exactly where they are based on the branding standards the state has established. While this builds trust and establishes reliability in everyday situations, in an emergency situation (think Sandy or Katrina) it becomes even more important. Just as it’s critical for citizens to have a trusted resource they can access quickly, it’s imperative that agencies have the ability to disseminate emergency information in real time to citizens.

Meet and exceed citizen expectations

The first generation of government websites tried to take the existing physical structure and simply make it digital. Paper forms were turned into PDFs and made available for download. Processes and regulations were typed up and posted online. Citizens were turning to agency websites to find basic information, but still required phone calls or even in-person visits to complete tasks.

Today, with the call for a citizen-centric government, the term “digital” has taken on a new meaning. In the private sector, consumers can shop, pay bills, and even conduct banking online, and now they’re expecting to conduct government business online in the same way. The most forward-thinking government IT managers are finding ways to meet expectations set by the private sector, and then going above and beyond to serve citizens.

For example, the City of Los Angeles launched a series of digital initiatives with the goal of building closer ties with its residents. Their overall strategy is largely inspired by the private sector, but rather than the goal of profits, the goal is communication.

“When the motive is profits, good ideas prevail and bad ones die, so we watch the private sector for good strategies to engage with consumers,” said Ted Ross, general manager and CIO of the city’s Information Technology Agency, also in the “Trending: Digital Branding in Government” white paper. “We’re a very large and complex city with more than 38 departments that provide a wide variety of services. Our digital presence is critical to how the average resident is going to communicate, engage, and simply know us.”

With that in mind, Ross and his team looked for ways to help citizens easily communicate and engage with government. One of the most successful initiatives is MyLA311 Mobile – a mobile app allowing citizens to report issues, such as potholes or new graffiti. “We now receive more than 104,000 app submissions each year,” Ross says. “In many cases, our residents find it easier to use an app than make a phone call.”

Both Georgia and Los Angeles’ path to transforming citizen services through digital

The citizen experience

It’s not enough to simply offer digital services that meet the needs of citizens. These services must be readily accessible anytime, anywhere, and on any device. Two-thirds of citizens have a smartphone, and 19 percent use it as their primary way to connect to the Internet. In addition, 74 percent of citizens use social media, and are increasingly using it to solve customer service and support issues.

Like consumer brands, government agencies need to offer up a variety of communication mediums across device types. Forward thinking agencies are developing a social media presence and relaunching websites backed by new content management platforms that are more flexible and responsive.

The city of LA recently relaunched LACity.org using the open source Drupal platform. In doing so, it gained 60 percent improvement in performance as well as 100 percent mobile responsiveness while complying with American with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility requirements. In addition, they’ve created communication channels with the fire department, police department, and public libraries through social media to reach citizens like never before.

Digital foundation

Organizations like the State of Georgia and City of LA are paving the way toward innovation in government, but they aren’t getting there alone. They’ve invested in open source and cloud-based technology that’s flexible, agile, and cost effective. This allows individual departments to create and distribute content by themselves rather than relying on the IT department or an army of web developers to load the content on to the various channels. This self-service model has allowed departments to communicate quickly and frequently with citizens, while the technology department focuses on new applications and services.

According to Tony Scott, federal chief information officer, the biggest benefit of the cloud is speed. “It’s not that cloud can save money – though it can. Nor that it can make development more agile – though it does. No, the real advantage of cloud is speed. Speed to market. Speed to solution. Speed to meet the needs of whatever our citizens need. We’ve got to draw the line, and say we’re going to do everything we can to get faster and faster and FASTER to be competitive in the global economy.”

Once agencies have the digital foundation built, they can work internally to establish trust with citizens, exceed their expectations, and provide experiences that surpass those offered in the private sector.

Todd Akers is the vice president of public sector at Acquia.

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