How Government Agencies Can Use SMS for the Public Good

Feb 6, 2023
How Government Agencies Can Use SMS for the Public Good

If you work for a state or local government agency you probably think a lot about how to communicate with your community — and how they communicate with you — given that public servants should be as accessible as possible. You probably already offer a lot of ways to communicate with those you serve — via in-person office hours, telephone calls, email, and web forms. If that’s as far as you go, though, you may be missing out on a channel that many people prefer to use.

Public agencies can benefit from adding SMS to their communications toolbox. Virtually everyone has a cellphone, so virtually everyone can access SMS. Text messages have a 98% open rate, and 90% of texts are opened within three minutes.

Using SMS is less expensive than many alternatives — a big positive when it comes to spending tax monies responsibly. Instead of calling a 311 municipal services hotline, residents can text their issues to an equivalent number. Behind the scenes, an application reads incoming texts and responds automatically by providing informational resources or forwarding queries to the appropriate people and departments. Text messaging makes it easy for citizens to report burned-out streetlights and get information about permits and licenses at a very low cost to the municipality. It can improve communications and enhance customer service.

SMS use cases for public communication

Almost every government agency can use SMS for community text marketing. It’s a great way to share news about special events, holidays, changes in hours of business, and other kinds of general news. Text messages don’t require agreeing upon a mutual time to communicate. People open them quickly. And digital messages are easy to include in the public record to satisfy transparency laws.

Agencies can send confirmation messages to citizens who submit forms or comment to the agency, to acknowledge receipt. When appropriate, software developers can build confirmations into the process of handling an incoming message, perhaps sending status updates at different milestones, such as when a task is assigned to a specific individual and when it’s completed.

Text messages can contain links to web pages, so governments can send members of the public to a web page that tells them the information they need, or to a web form where they can file a report. And SMS leaves a digital record of every message, which is important for oversight, transparency, and compliance.

With a single text message, government representatives can send notifications to thousands of people at one time, allowing citizens to access the information they need quickly from their mobile devices. What are some common scenarios in which SMS helps governmental agencies?

Emergency alerts

If a hurricane, tornado, blizzard, or even severe thunderstorms threaten the public, the powers that be should warn people to prepare. An agency can send bulk SMS messages to every opted-in citizen to tell them what’s happening, at what time issues are expected, and where and how they can get help.

Safety alerts

One texting example that many people are familiar with is the Amber Alert/ Silver Alert system: If a child or a senior with dementia goes missing, law enforcement can send an SMS message to everyone within a certain geographic area with information about the missing person and other useful details.

Service notifications

Text messages are an effective way for public works departments to tell residents about changes in parking regulations, temporary parking changes caused by street cleaning, snowplowing, or construction, and road closures and detours. They can alert neighborhoods about shutoffs to repair water lines.

Reminders

Governments work best when all citizens have an opportunity to participate. Sending SMS messages can help remind people of their responsibilities. Local governments can use text messages to remind adults to register to vote, and to tell them where their polling place is on Election Day.

Courts can send reminders for plaintiffs, defendants, and jurors about when they have to appear at hearings. A study from New York courts showed that text reminders reduce the failure-to-appear rate by up to 21%.

Business licensing authorities can nudge business owners about business registration renewal deadlines.

Motor vehicle departments can remind drivers that their cars need a state-mandated inspection. Most drivers would rather get a reminder and pay for an inspection than get pulled over and pay for a ticket — and have to pay for an inspection on top of it.

Surveys

Not all text messaging has to be reactive. Government bureaus can also use SMS to send out surveys to ask what people want from them or to gauge how effective a program is.

And more!

All of the use cases we’ve looked at so far rely on governments sending communications to residents, but when you have the ability to use SMS, you’ll find it a worthwhile tool for interagency communication as well.

Finding time for meetings between government officials is a chore. In-person meetings are tiresome to set up and not always a productive use of all participants’ time. Voice calls are almost as poor a communication channel — they take too much time and leave no easily searched record of any decisions made. Email is a better option — when people open it. Shared documents are another great alternative, but security and privacy regulations make using them problematic. SMS makes an excellent alternative — it’s widely available, quickly read, and easily preserved for transparency purposes.

Another thing SMS works well for is inbound communication from the public to government agencies and bureaus. Most agencies already offer multiple communication channels to allow the public to use whichever ones they’re most comfortable with. SMS is as timely as a visit to City Hall without the inconvenience of having to travel downtown. It’s as convenient as email as a way to send images, documents, and web links, which can be useful to help municipal workers understand issues more clearly. And it’s more convenient than voice calls to staff members for all of the reasons that individuals choose to text their friends rather than call them.

Finally, security best practices call for organizations to use two-factor authentication (2FA) before permitting authorized users to access their digital assets. For many organizations, 2FA involves the use of one-time passwords (OTP) delivered via SMS.

The right way to support SMS

Clearly SMS is a useful communications channel, but government agencies can’t let individual workers use their personal cell phones for official business. They need to set up an SMS communications platform that uses an SMS API to programmatically send and receive messages and route them appropriately.

Plivo helps governments and public sector agencies keep their constituents informed.

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