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Building digitally connected communities fit for a democracy (and the future)

I care about democracy, and I’m sure you do too. So it’s a worry when only 15% of the electorate turns up to vote. That’s what happened in the 2012 Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) elections. But, did anyone really know they were happening, or what they meant? Um, no. Not really.

At the time, I was working at Southampton City Council in the communications team. Although PCC elections are not a council’s responsibility, we too felt a little bemused due to a lack of information or proactive campaigning. Since then, many lessons (particularly on the need to engage the public) have been learned, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

The 2016 PCC elections earlier in May proved a little more enticing, with an average turnout of 26%. I think it’s safe to assume though, that the increase in public participation was a direct result of “piggybacking” on other local elections. Yes, that’s a much better idea – “catch ‘em while you can!”.

Unsurprisingly, voter turnout for the PCC elections was lower in areas where no other contests were taking place. For example, Durham saw a turnout of 17%, up just 3% on 2012. Clearly there’s still a long way to go before we see whole streets of residents hotfooting it to the polling station for the next election – which by the way is in 2020.

If you want people to get involved, to switch off ‘Bake Off’ and get out and vote, you need to inspire them to participate. It’s crucial people know what they’re voting for and what the options could mean for them. This kind of feat involves serious planning and coordination. You’ll need to launch a research-based and intelligent communications campaign which informs, excites and drives people to take decisive action.

Sharing compelling content is key. And so is the way in which people access and “receive” it. This is fundamental to the success of any campaign. You have to reach audiences where they are – on the device and platform they are comfortable using. Public participation in initiatives, and most importantly in democratic decision-making, has to be made easy. The good news is, technology and digital communications have opened up opportunities to connect with audiences like never before. They can play a powerful role in engaging the public and effecting behavioural change.

Streamlining the process by which someone can access your services, participate in an initiative, or complete a transaction (or vote!) is all-important. Let there be no obstacles, for we humans have an average attention span of… oh look, yet another billboard telling me who I should be voting for in the PCC elections. Just kidding.

According to recent studies, thanks to our smartphones, we have a shorter attention span than a goldfish. We focus for an average of only eight seconds, which means it’s essential you connect with your audience and capture attention straight away. If it’s a struggle to engage communities now, imagine how difficult it could be to sustain the attention of new and future generations of digital-natives?

Now’s the time to develop digital engagement strategies and invest in infrastructure that is fit-for-purpose for the years to come. It’s exciting to see how “digital transformation” projects are evolving across different industries, particularly in the public sector. The opportunities these digital developments are creating (and will create) for government organisations and citizens are tremendous. Well-connected and informed communities will be empowered to build stronger, healthier and happier societies, in collaboration with governments across the world.

If you’d like to find out how organisations are using digital communications like GovDelivery’s Communications Cloud to engage more and more citizens, register for our webinar (delivered in collaboration with comms2point0) on Wednesday 18 May at 11am BST: 20 Tips To Boost Your Digital Engagement.

Take a look at GovDelivery’s resources for examples of how local and central government agencies are using our digital communication technologies.