Demographic change is increasingly having a tangible impact on local communities. An aging as well as shrinking population is creating a number of consequences. Therefore municipalities do not only have to compete for investors, tourists, and buying power, but also increasingly for more inhabitants. Given these developments, it is ever more important to understand how municipalities communicate with their residents. Steinbeis experts at the SVI Chair for Marketing and Direct Marketing at Steinbeis University Berlin (SHB) have been examining how municipalities communicate.
Although each action by the municipality involves communicating at some level, events in Germany such as the mass panic that occurred during the Love Parade in Duisburg in 2011 or the mass demonstrations against the railway project Stuttgart 21 indicate that historic- ally-dominant oral communication is becoming less important. The role of communication as a control mechanism in local communities is in need for reform. Due to the demographic and social changes local government communication needs to adapt to new demands.
Against this backdrop, the SVI Chair for Marketing and Direct Marketing at Steinbeis University Berlin (SHB) has launched the research project “Communication with Citizens in Local Communities”, that is scheduled to last several years. Following a number of qualitative studies in the summer of 2011, a representative survey was carried out in German municipalities with more than 5,000 inhabitants. Central aspects emerging in the first results are the value placed on voluntary communication with citizens, the willingness of authorities to enter into dialogue, and the relevance and frequency of use of a variety of forms of communication.
The data for the survey was based on a sample of 523 officials responsible for communication, in most cases the mayors themselves. The sample covered cities and villages in all German states, except the three city-states of Berlin, Hamburg and Bremen. The survey inhabis the largest empirical study to date on the communication habits of municipalities in Germany.
The study focuses on understanding voluntary communication, regarding which municipalities have many liberties in comparison to the legally regulated mandatory communication.
In detail, voluntary communication has been divided into four main areas: information for citizens, communication with regards to identification, change communication, and crisis communication. The survey results underscore the importance placed on voluntary communication. On average, respondents categorized 55.8% of all communication with citizens undertaken by local communities as voluntary. In municipalities with more than 10,000 inhabitants, this share increases to 58.3% and in municipalities with less than 10,000 inhabitants it decreases to 52.7%. According to the respondents, the majority of municipal communication with citizens is thus voluntary. On a scale from 1 (not at all important) to 7 (very important), respondents’ average rating of the importance of voluntary communication was 5.9. When asked to consider how important voluntary communication was two years ago, the average rating was 5.2, which shows the rising importance of this type of communication. The respondents believed that this trend would continue over the next two years. From the perspective of the municipalities spontaneous communications directed at citizens are highly important. Apparently municipalities have recognized the importance of communication with citizens for successful cooperation and effective implementation of policies.
Given the significance of voluntary communication, dialogue-based approaches are becoming increasingly important to local municipalities. The survey looked at two key aspects of dialogue-based communication with citizens: the initiator of communication (citizens or the municipality) and the degree of interaction (ranging from entirely one-way to full two-way communication). Communications that were largely instigated by citizens do not appear to exist in local communities, who clearly consider citizens to be primarily on the receiving end of communication and not communicators themselves. With respect to the degree of interaction in communication, there are differences among municipalities. More than half of all municipalities (Group 3 in the diagram) are in an intermediate position regarding interaction (score: 4). For about one quarter of the municipalities (group 1), communication with citizens is principally focused on two-way interaction. Communication was reported as primarily oneway (group 2) in just 15% of municipalities. These results indicate that in general, there is only a limited focus on dialogue in municipal communication with citizens. This is especially reflected in responses regarding the extent to which the com munication process between citizens and the municipalities is initiated (or can be initiated) by citizens. Regarding the direction of communication few municipalities that employ two-way communication could be found. The overall picture for all municipalities surveyed is however rather traditional: communication is initiated by the municipality, reducing citizens to recipients of communication content.
Besides asking about the general tendency to enter into dialogue when communicating with citizens, the survey investigated the significance and the intensity of use of specific communication instruments as part of voluntary communications. With the exception of communication through classic advertising media, all forms of communication were considered important. Respondents lent the greatest importance to one-to-one communication with citizens, with or without the use of media. PR and electronic communication were also considered important. Communicating with citizens through local channels, such as clubs and societies, seems to be less relevant.
The use of different communication instruments in principle corresponds to their significance, although the intensity with which they are used was always lower than their estimated importance, with the exception of non-electronic communications. This indicates that apart from non-electronic communications, the intensity of use of different types of communication will rise in the future. It can safely be assumed that the use of non-electronic information material will decline and largely superseded by electronic information material.
The results show that voluntary communication with citizens is highly important – not just in theory, but also from an empirical standpoint. More than half of all communication with citizens is voluntary and its already perceived importance will increase in the next two years.
The analysis of communication‘s dialogueorientation however clearly shows that the majority of German municipalities have a lot of potential to improve regarding their communication with citizens. The indications are that they could improve by understanding the relevance of different forms of communication. More personal communication and greater use of mass electronic media, both of which facilitate dialogue, are relevant in this respect.
Prof. Dr. Dr. Helmut Schneider
SVI Endowed Chair for Marketing and Direct Marketing – School of Management and Innovation Steinbeis University Berlin
A detailed analysis of the research findings can be found in the following working papers, which can be ordered from the endowed chair for a fee of € 5 plus mailing costs: