Feeling a bit out of touch and behind the times, the Sheriff’s Office in Stearns County, Minn., decided to take a new approach to public outreach. The office contracted with government communications vendor GovDelivery with the hope of increasing citizen engagement, and it worked – the office saw an increase of more than 500 percent in the number of crime tips received from the community, along with an increase of 143 percent in downloads of crime prevention and awareness documents.

Staff wanted to get away from the old model of a sheriff’s office website, which is usually just a kind of static billboard, and begin using modern technologies, said Sheriff John L. Sanner. “We realized there was a whole generation, if not more, out there that uses both Internet and cellular technologies, and traditional methods of communication are becoming obsolete to that group of people,” Sanner said. “We wanted to tap into that and use that group of people and the technology that they carry with them every single day to provide information back to us and receive information from us.”

Tips can be critically important to law enforcement officers, and some of the tips they’ve received since starting their new outreach program have helped lead to arrests, Sanner said.

The office launched its new engagement campaign in May 2013. The biggest change was that the sheriff’s office began using an existing county email system to contact citizens. Identified as an optimal method for outreach since it didn’t require a new technology purchase, it could achieve the sheriff's goal of engaging with the community.

Experimenting with several different outreach techniques, they ended up using a standard email template, with a header encouraging tips via phone, email or contact form, said Mary Yang, senior communications manager at GovDelivery. “That simple sort of header and template that they used in every single one of their emails generated that many more tip submissions in that seven month period,” she said.

The office also began using an attention-grabbing pop-up overlay on its website. All the communications were made to work on multiple platforms so that tablet or smartphones users could easily access information and submit tips too.

Stearns County’s use of social engagement technologies, Yang said, reflects a larger trend in government to want to increase engagement as a way to make the most of shrinking budgets.

Very quickly after launching the campaign, the office began seeing results, Sanner said, with the number of annual tips rising from just nine to 57. “We’re fairly certain we’re not going to plateau with those numbers for quite some time. We’re optimistic to see how efficient this can and will become.”

GovDelivery found that email was the most common way people chose to interact with the department, with email accounting for 59 percent of all tips received. An analysis of the data revealed that putting the sheriff’s name in the subject line of emails to citizens increased the “open-to-click” rate by 200 percent.

This technology makes the office more efficient, Sanner said, and that’s what technology is supposed to do. “It’s supposed to, but a lot of times it does exactly the opposite,” he said. “It feels like all the stuff we do with computers now, we didn’t have to do before. It almost becomes a burden.” But this is different, he said, and it’s setting staff members up to be ready for next-generation 911, something they hope to implement in the coming years.

As emergency services technology advance, they want the public to feel more comfortable interacting with law enforcement, Sanner said. In the past, talking to the police was kind of a big deal, because a person would have to take time out of their day to physically visit a police officer. “It’s so much easier now,” he said. “People can do this anonymously if they choose, plus they can do it very quickly.”

The office reported that the engagement program cost about $20,000, and it was worth it. If it hasn’t seen a return on investment yet, it definitely will, Sanner said. “That will improve public safety in the long run, and it’s hard to put a dollar value on that,” he said.

Using the new tools has been very easy, said Dory Dahlberg, Web communications specialist for Stearns County. “We have one sheriff staffer who sends out bulletins, and our public information specialist helps with social media posts and news releases,” Dahlberg said. “I keep their website and multimedia content growing. So as new things come to light in any area, there are a few of us trying to spread the word through the other channels.”

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.