How my years of experience in the public sector led me to design a better customer service tool.

I worked for 20 years in the NHS and local government as a director of public health in several NHS trusts and local authorities in England. I saw many problems that I thought could have been solved with just a little bit of innovation. One of the biggest problems I saw was the challenge for these organisations to be able to fulfil their duty to listen to what people had to say about their local services. It’s difficult to get the numbers in, to get a representative dataset, and to make it easily actionable. It can be labour intensive, and expensive.

For instance, response rates of 2% are not uncommon for council consultations using current methods. The representation in this 2% is often middle aged, white, educated people. A northwest council won an award for their online survey that got a 2% return, and a rural southern council had just 127 valid responses from a population of 186,000 for their budget consultation. This is what decisions are being based on.

I looked into why response rates are so low. The people I spoke to, both young and old, tech savvy and not so much, had a list of reasons as to why they didn’t bother. All the current methods presented just enough of a barrier to put people off. And it wasn’t just councils or NHS services, either, it was a whole range of services….

Clearly there are practical reasons why these methods are not reaching more people. In person events can be inconvenient or intimidating, people don’t want to have to register and login and remember a password, and few people bother with postal or written methods for a range of reasons- literacy being one of them. We can also see here that though internet access and smartphone ownership is high and of course continues to grow, there are still significant proportions of people who don’t have internet access or use smartphones.

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That’s why I feel so passionately about exploring SMS as a key tool for citizen engagement. It’s not techie and exciting, and it’s certainly not sexy, but it is still used despite common misperceptions. SMS is better than Twitter and Whatsapp for organisations and services in my view because it is anonymous, free for the user, doesn’t need an internet connection, and is completely open to the topic that the customer wants to text about. People, especially young people, do use texts for all kinds of basic communication. It is a utility- texting mum and dad about where you are or when you’ll be home, any time you’re out and about without good coverage, a low battery, or running out of data. You might not want to show your friends how clever you are with a text, but you would take a moment to have your say.

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But perhaps one of the most universal reasons to explore SMS as a tool based on cognitive motivation theory. It reduces time and effort between a thought and recording that thought- it reduces the friction between the service user and capturing that service users’ experience. Taking out that friction leads to the potential for a larger, more representative data set. A more equal data set.

And lower friction also means reducing money and staff time in consultations and surveys. You can have an ongoing 24/7/365 listening service, consultation service- demonstrating that you have given your constituents a method to say what they want, when they want, using the simplest most accessible process. This would allow you to rethink how you conduct other aspects of consultation.

But I also truly believe it is the right thing to offer. If the methods for having your voice heard aren’t equally accessible, then are we presenting true equal opportunity for democracy?

Our simple, affordable service turns text into easy to digest data. The important thing is to get the number of voices up, to get a larger, more representative data set. With Textocracy, you can do that affordably and easily.