Abraham Lincoln knew how to consult his constituents, says David Sovka (pictured above) of Environment Canterbury.
The US president put in a lot of legwork to canvass and refine public opinion on the question of slavery in a famous 1858 debate.
If he'd had the Internet, he could have found out what he needed to know in a few days. Yet, Sovka says, online collection of data about citizens is not something local bodies do much of.
One problem for a local authority seeking to communicate with its citizens is getting itself some "elbow room" in a crowded "attention landscape", he says. One classic response to its messages is: "Who cares? What's on TV?"
In perhaps the most visually diverting talk of the ALGIM IT managers conference in Wellington earlier this month -- featuring videos to teach grammar and convey political messages and a striking slide of cockroaches epitomising the wrong attitude to the citizen -- Sovka attempted to spark some ideas on creatively conveying information to local government's consitutents and encouraging communication in return.
The cockroaches accompanied a quote from marketer David Lubars. "Customers are like roaches. You spray 'em and you spray 'em and they become immune after a while."
It's a fair bet that a large proportion of the audience, asked to remember aspects of Sovka's talk, will recall the cockroaches. Thus he will have demonstrated one of his key points, that a powerful image can drive a message home. A lot of them will probably also remember the definition of a pronoun for a long time, if they didn't already know (and less than half the audience did).
Multimedia is an integral part of online communication and messages conveyed with it tend to stick in the mind, Sovka argues. Animations with catchy tunes have been demonstrated to get children singing about such superficially unappealing local government messages as using public transport and ensuring that stormwater drains into the right place.
The citizen is not a customer, says Sovka.
"Customers have contracts; citizens have rights and responsibilities."
Most crucially, "customers can go somewhere else". It would be a big decision to move out of your town because you didn't like the local authority.
While the crafts of local government communication should not be likened to consumer marketing, "there's no reason why we can't use the tools of the enemy".