In a recent survey carried out by Yotta, 43% of road users said they believed the authorities prioritised maintenance of major highways over repairs to local infrastructure.
There are many reasons why this figure is so high, but mainly it can be explained by the fact that people notice the roads they travel on everyday more than a distant motorway. Because they travel on them every day, any inconvenience becomes magnified.
In fact, prioritising of major highways makes sense. But the missing link is communication. The allocation of funds may be logical and the correct decision, but the authorities must communicate the rationale behind it in order to keep the public onside.
To give another example; in the same survey, 62% of road users believed that the overall state of the roads and surrounding infrastructure in their local area had declined over the past five years. Yet, third party data suggests road standards as a whole around the country have remained largely static despite a fall in funding levels.
So, in many cases, it’s about perceptions rather than facts and it’s up to the authorities to counteract these beliefs.
Communicating with the public is challenging – and will become more so as the years pass. The younger digital-savvy generation have increased expectations of service levels and response times. We’re living in a world of fast, if not instant gratification. If we place an order online, we want it to arrive almost instantaneously and this expectation is now spreading from the consumer world to all walks of life.
So given that councils will inevitably struggle to meet public demand, they have to become more proactive and explain the decisions that impact the public. Even if a problem cannot be rapidly resolved, they should let people know that they are aware of the issues and they will be addressing them in due course.
They must shine a light on the ‘dark art’ of asset management and highlight the science and thinking behind it. Public meetings can be a useful forum here, enabling people to get their voice heard.
But, importantly, communication must work both ways – focusing on getting accurate information out to a target audience but also being receptive and responsive to their queries and concerns. The public want and need to know that an authority is listening to them.
But as well as being proactive and two-way, information must always be presented in a manner that’s understandable and compelling. Far too often, the public is presented with a huge, text-based document. Clear messages delivered by a visualised asset management platform can help make complex issues easily understood. There is great potential here for authorities to make better use of visual imagery such as heat maps and graphic diagrams to get their message across.
The growing availability of data of all kinds means authorities do have relevant content to make use of. Councils are increasingly inundated with data as more and more real-time information from smart roads, the internet of things and other sources comes on stream.
If they want to drive enhanced engagement with the public in the future, though, the authorities will need to use this data wisely to cut through the complexity and provide clear messages that the public can readily understand. But as we have seen, they also need to go beyond this and set up a two-way engagement process, where the public can give voice to any issues they have, safe in the knowledge they will be listened to and will receive a positive response.
Only when data is used to drive this two-way dialogue and people feel their views are truly being heard, will councils be able to say with confidence that they have got the public onside.
Nick Smee is CEO of Yotta