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The Courthouse Journal is the official newsletter of the Washington Association of County Officials. Along with a newsletter to members, WACO also hosts the Courthouse Journal blog.

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Jan 07

How to Successfully Engage Your Public through Remote Work

Posted on January 7, 2021 at 11:41 AM by Melanie Terry

Courthouse Journal Blog 

January 8th, 2020  

How to Successfully Engage Your Public through Remote Work 

 

Through all the twists and turns 2020 took, and the beginning of 2021 may take, we found this to be true: county government does not have the option to halt work, slow down or stop serving the public while waiting for a vaccine to be distributed to the majority of the public. However, how county government offices deliver the work may be the greatest changing factor of 2020 and beyondBut this transition was not the same state-wide. While many counties continue to work from home with great ease, other counties faced challenges.  

The pandemic amplified how rural counties do not have the same circumstances as large urban counties through both broadband access and a cultural perception of government work. There is a digital disparity between small rural counties and large metropolitan counties. Many rural counties face a broadband issue that challenges their staff’s ability to work from home, and their constituent's ability to request services online. In a recent Washington State Department of Commerence study 97% of participants had access to broadband, however many of those individuals reported moderate to low download speeds. This effects quality Zoom meetings, access to cloud-based files, and large files being received via email. All things that are essential to working remotely. This not only effects your staff, but also the virtual services your constituents will have access to. Great strides are being made to improve the broadband access statewide, with the state legislature requiring all business and residences in the state to have access to the 25 mbps/3 mbps platform by 2024. Although widespread access to high speed internet is not instant, it is coming. 
 

Challenges to working from home may not just be tech based. As Route Fifty reports, many rural county residents want to do busines face to face, but governments can do a better job “at equipping their users and training them for future business tactics. When this is over, we’re going to need to ask what we can change, not just to better respond to the next crisis, but to change our business as usual.” 

Business as usual is changing and learning to better engage with your public no matter what the challenges are, is important during a pandemic, and in normal circumstances.  

Depending on your location, and the conditions in your county, your approach to the following suggestions will vary, however, we found these suggestions to the most helpful for all counties when faced with the challenge of engaging and serving your constituents through a socially distant pandemic - and setting the expectation of remote work after the pandemic.  

  1. 1. Communicate clearly about how to interact with your office. 

We can all acknowledge that the pandemic is fluid and hard to stay ahead of and each day may bring different challenges, however, communicating honestly and directly to your public will set clear expectations.  


  1. 2. Seek out intermediary solutions. 

In a recent article from World Bank, analyst Patricia Paskov recommends that governments with connectivity issues should seek out intermediary solutions. For example, if public officials can send emails from home but do not have a secure file sharing system, governments may recommend that they work primarily from home and go into the office once or twice a week. If some public officials have internet connection or access to a laptop at home and others do not, agencies may consider reallocating tasks within teams and units to enable remote work flow. Finding a partial solution to a challenging issue is better than finding no solution at all.  


  1. 3. A personalized touch does not always require a “human touch. 

We all long to return to the days when excellent customer service was delivered with a helping hand, smiling face and nonverbal gestures, and the reality is that recent studies show that many people still enjoy in-person services over virtual ones, however, the digital world is making great strides to provide a more universal accessibility and customer service. Deloitte Insights reports that “The best digital applications tend to have some features in common: they’re simple, intuitive, hassle-free, and personalized. They focus on solving a problem rather than delivering a service.” Deloitte continues to write The pandemic stresses the need for digital services while also setting the expectation for the public to use them. 


  1. 4. Offer numerous opportunities for public feedback.  

Offering multiple platforms for the public to offer feedback and ask for help is critical, especially in a pandemic. Public feedback will serve as the guiding source to identify what is working and what is not. It is also important to remember that feedback can start as a one-sided comment but can grow into dialogue between you and your constituents.  


  1. 5. Establish dedicated employees for in-person customer service only. 

The reality of some county offices is that constituents expect a staff member to remain in the office to deliver services. If that is a reality for your office, recent studies recommend establishing certain employees to work in the office while other team members work virtually. Those that are solely dedicated to in-person customer service can swift their other responsibilities to those working virtually, as they no longer will need to serve customers in the office. McKinsey & Company offers management models for small cross functional teams to prioritize work while limiting exposure.