Citizen Experience Smart Cities

Cities and Feedback Loops

We have published several posts here on Citizen20Series about how the city is emerging as the preferred environment for living and working. The majority of the world’s population now lives in cities and many of the world’s successful cities are growing at paces that make it increasingly difficult to provide the services that are needed to make the city attractive in the first place.

The most successful cities tend to be places which attract certain types of professional. Cities can’t just be created out of dust. Just look at the so-called ghost cities of China – complete with sky-scrapers of offices and apartments but mostly empty. Cities need a reason to be. They don’t just occur. Rather they evolve as a result of people and their desire to live and work in them.

But this market-driven emergence of the world’s most successful cities makes it difficult for city governments to make provision for future growth. It’s possible to hazard certain guesses in terms of population growth but knowing where the new population will reside, or knowing where bottle-necks might appear in traffic infrastructure, are greater challenges.

Part of the reason why cities are successful has, however, a lot to do with getting the basics right. And that may not be about doing things as they have been done in the past.

This applies particularly to so-called citizen engagement processes. But let’s look at another process to make the point.

Let’s take the example of London. One of the greatest challenges that London residents face every day is getting from one part of London to another. It’s not just about the morning commute. It’s also about attending meetings. A trip from one part of London to another may require a journey time of around an hour via various forms of transport.  Therefore, if the process of ticketing and passenger management adds significantly to the journey-time then London starts to become seriously unattractive.

London Underground has been very successful in removing significant potential bottlenecks in passenger processing. Decades ago it introduced automatic ticket reading machines. Then it introduced contactless ticketing. And around a year ago it introduced contactless payment and ticketing.  Each of these developments resulted in much better passenger experience at the same time as reduced customer care burdens on the Underground system.

But when thinking about getting more people through train stations the thinking often starts and stops with the same things: train rolling stock. London Underground proved that step-changes in service performance could be achieved by thinking about all constituent processes and improving them.

The same rule can apply to citizen engagement processes. Why assume, for example, that managing increased call-centre volume is all about increasing resources in the call centre? As many city authorities have shown it’s much better to provide information where it’s needed rather than force citizens to do things they don’t want to do. People would not choose to call a call centre of they could avoid it. Therefore provide information in a form that digestible to avoid the call in the first place. That’s demand avoidance. Don’t create the demand for a service that’s not demanded in the first place. Just as people don’t want to stand in lines waiting to pay for tickets there’s little point insisting they listen to hold music waiting to speak to an operative.

A good example of this is feedback looping. It seems obvious but, so often, the feedback loop is missing in citizen engagement processes.

Let’s say I see a pile of rubble in a field near the river near where I walk my dog each day. I use Google to find the email address of my local city’s environmental crime reporting unit. I email photos of the offending waste and include information about where it’s located. I send the email and then…nothing.  The email isn’t acknowledged. I get no reply. Three weeks later the pile of waste has grown. How do I feel?

I may feel so annoyed that I ring a contact centre. I might get even more annoyed when it’s clear that the contact centre has no record of the email I sent.

In this scenario the city authority has heaped all of the hard work and frustration onto the citizen. The citizen has acted in the city’s interests but gets no reward. No auto-response the email confirming that the query has been registered. No case number assigned. No action taken. Lots of frustration.  No positive outcome.

In short, no feedback loops.

Feedback loops are at the heart of good customer service because, even if they are automated, they provide information that confirms that action has been taken or that a duty of care has passed from one party to another. They are at the heart of good city management.