What COVID-19 Taught Us about Communications in the Public Sector

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photo of a Young Woman With Face Mask Talking On The Phone.

We all know communication is changing. As public chat services like WhatsApp and iMessaging have gained popularity, enterprises and public services have put focus on digitising their customer service. The goal is to increase efficiencies and gain a competitive edge through improvements to speed of service delivery. That includes minimising costs through lower cost per contact channels, which people prefer to use in communications with customer service departments. 

According to consumer research firm MRI-Simmons, voice was the most popular way to communicate in 2012, with 94% of survey respondents having done so up to a week before the survey. By 2020, voice calls had fallen to least popular position, behind texting, emailing, posting on social media and using chat apps. 60% of Gen Z respondents said they were likely to hang up if their call wasn’t answered in under 45 seconds. Email is another tool that also led to the decrease of voice calls and helped businesses make contact with customers on their own time. It was becoming apparent that it was important to provide customers with the option of multiple channels to establish contact. In this discussion, voice became branded as the “least efficient way to contact someone”. Some experts began claiming “voice was dead” as a communication channel.

Where we’ve lost our way with how we view voice communications, especially in critical public services like healthcare, education and social welfare, is that we have failed to ask our citizens: in what way do they feel most comfortable interacting with UK public services in different scenarios? With this question in mind, this blog argues that voice communications is not dead in the UK public sector, but is undergoing a renaissance. 

Read the situation: communications are customised to the situation at hand

Not everything can be texted. Voice plays a critical role in delivering sensitive, private and difficult messages. For example, during a crisis such as the current coronavirus outbreak, people naturally pivot toward a human response. These situations can initiate a temporary return to traditional communications, which can often be overlooked when planning the digitisation of public services. Statistics published to date during the COVID-19 pandemic indicate voice calls have increased by up to 40%. This is not a local phenomenon, but is rather a global trend. 

Voice calls also give a sense of security to citizens. For example, important calls such as those from hospitals can be securely identified on the device as coming from the hospital, and clearly indicate the reason for the call, such as “Test Results” or “Health Services”. Sensitive test results are not texted to a citizen and thus voice plays a critical role in delivering important and sensitive information in a manner that is thoughtful and deliberate. While we can use enhanced calling technology to intelligently route calls and give a preview to the receiver of the subject of the scheduled voice call by SMS, we cannot ignore the role voice calls play in delivering critical and private medical information.

photo of a woman outside talking on her mobile phone

Know your audience: communications are customised to the receiver

In certain situations, some problems can only be resolved by speaking with a person. For instance, in the private sector, high-value transactions are frequently conducted over the phone by request of customers. 

The UK public sector’s omnichannel approach needs to be led by data, where each local authority knows why and how they should be communicating with a citizen based on their preferences and the time and nature of the enquiry. This means that local authorities should always be able to evaluate how to contact a citizen before initiating an engagement. Some examples of this are as follows:

  • In healthcare, a hospital confirming a check-up with a doctor would send a simple SMS for the patient to either confirm or cancel an appointment. However, when they are confirming major surgery, they would use a voice call to convey more information and ensure the patient is correctly informed of potential requirements and preparations.
  • In education, a teacher can send widespread announcements to parents via email and even social media groups. But in the event of discussing a struggling student, a special needs pupil or anything that is private to the development of an individual, the educator would pick up the phone or schedule a video meeting call if the parent was comfortable with the latter.
  • In local councils, while social media platforms are incredibly valuable for getting information out to a community instantly around COVID-19, any information about individual and specific coronavirus cases and control strategies with police that need to be kept confidential from the public would be handled in person or over the phone.
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Voice communication today needs upfront privacy measures

In the past, call centres were the key to customer service in all sectors. In recent years, UK public services have tried to downsize operations and seek more cost-effective solutions for contact. Due to a combination of phone number spoofing, financial fraud, and other scams, citizens have lost confidence that their device will correctly report who is really calling them. Businesses can also be targeted by bad actors who impersonate their business activities, and their credibility could be significantly diminished overnight if their brand is tarnished by such a deception.  

What can we do to improve? UK public services understand that residents still want to communicate by voice (especially in our current, complex situation) and can take steps to improve their voice privacy protocols. We must change the paradigm, and regain the trusted phone call narrative by assuring citizens it is indeed the UK local authority that is calling. A prime example during COVID-19  is when a hospital calls to return test results to people, they should eliminate all doubt about who is calling. That certainty increases the chances that the receiver will answer the phone. There is no time for ambiguity or missed calls when lives are at stake.

Voice is not dead, it’s evolving 

The current situation has shown us that most citizens prefer a human connection when the stakes are high. The benefits to the public service in continuing to use voice communications in data privacy, citizen satisfaction and PR implications far outweigh the perceived efficiencies of 100% digitisation of communications platforms. 

To unlock the true value of omnichannel communications, local governments and public sector services must look to invest in both technology that makes the most sense for their services as well as have the expertise (in-house or outsourced) to use that technology effectively. There is certainly a place for voice in this landscape, and when it is correctly used it can foster strong citizen engagement. Local authorities should ensure that communication strategies are not operated in silos for each channel but through a unified campaign orchestration across channels to engage with citizens. Voice is not dead; voice is undergoing a renaissance in 2020. We only need to look at where citizens have migrated for vital communications during COVID-19 as proof.  

Why RingCentral for the public sector? 

Our expertise is more than just cloud. RingCentral can strengthen the link between local government, public services and UK residents to allow for greater collaboration, problem solving, and benefit sharing between all three. RingCentral is a 5x leader in the UCaaS Gartner Magic Quadrant, recognised for our industry-leading technology, manageability, and reliability. RingCentral integrates with your already familiar apps and services such as Microsoft Office, Outlook, Teams, G Suite, Google Chrome, Jira, and more. We are on the G Cloud framework and RM3808 (Network Services 2) certified and can offer UK data residency as well.

Discover how cloud communications is revolutionising the public sector.

Originally published Oct 07, 2020


    Ashima Bhatt is the Director of Product Marketing for RingCentral’s core Message, Video, Phone product offering. She uses RingCentral as a platform to share with the world how to connect people in meaningful and compelling ways to build forward.

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