A city messaging system is an excellent solution for governments, helping them stay connected with local citizens and provide useful or urgent communications when needed.

SMS is an ideal option for this purpose – text messages have very high open rates, therefore, news is hard to miss. Texts also get delivered almost instantly, and because they're naturally concise, they're easy and convenient to read. Everyone with a mobile phone can access SMS, making this a channel with an extensive reach.

Read on to discover how SMS can be used as a highly effective mass notification system for governments and the type of messages it works well for.

A convenient way for the local government to reach residents

A mass texting service allows local and national governments to reach millions of people at once – across an entire city, state or country. There are many applications of this type of communication system, as follows:

1. Emergency alerts

SMS is the best choice for time-sensitive and urgent alerts, such as evacuation orders or instructions to take shelter (e.g. from a hurricane or other natural disaster). Not to mention:

  • Missing person or AMBER alerts (to appeal to communities for urgent assistance in searching for and recovering an endangered, missing or abducted child).

  • Chemical, biological, or radiological hazard warnings.

  • Earthquake, flood, forest fire or tsunami warnings.

It's imperative to have an emergency notification system in place – hence the U.S. has already implemented Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), which are location-based, text-like messages government officials can use to communicate with the general public in certain geographical areas. These are sent via participating wireless carriers (not cellular networks).

2. Weather warnings

In severe weather, such as strong winds, fog, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and thunderstorms, an SMS weather alert can help citizens prepare to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. You can also inform residents in advance of an extreme heatwave or cold weather and include advice on how to deal with it. The same goes for air quality alerts – simply include a link to website resources within your text message.

3. Traffic and route updates

Text messaging is helpful for sending real-time notifications about traffic congestion and road closures – you can even suggest alternative routes to help road users reach their destination as quickly as possible.

Other use cases include broadcasting public transport delays or disruptions, route maintenance alerts and parking capacity updates during a city event.

4. Public health notifications

If you need to announce urgent public health messages such as virus outbreaks (with regular updates) and vaccination or testing reminders, SMS ensures fast delivery. Texts are also useful for informing residents of the closest health facilities, centres or clinics to visit in a medical emergency and providing advice on personal or community health and safety, air and water quality issues, etc.

Some regions now use SMS to provide emergency response instructions for infectious disease outbreaks. During the COVID-19 pandemic, São Paulo, for the first time ever, adopted SMS for public health, sending text messages to millions of people across the city. And similarly, Philadelphia set up a text hotline for Covid updates.

Public health announcement concept

5. Complaint handling

SMS is an excellent conversational communication channel for resolving complaints and queries from residents instantly. If you don't have enough human agents to cover incoming messages, you can set up SMS chatbots for automatic responses. For example, North Charleston implemented Citibot to make the government more accessible to the public. It gives keyword-based replies to answer common questions and also helps by registering complaints for bulk-forwarding to the relevant person(s) or department for processing.

As a minimum, you can use SMS to capture contact information for complaints and feedback and include instructions on how to submit the issue/question. Always thank each citizen after they submit a message and follow up regularly with them to update them on the progress of their problem or enquiry. This can help improve resident satisfaction.

6. Local event reminders

Running a local festival or special event? Use SMS mass notifications to engage with residents and encourage local participation. You can also follow up with reminder notifications to reinforce the date, time and venue and reduce the number of no-shows.

Other use cases include sending out transportation, parking and route information, the security measures in place (e.g. bag checking upon arrival), general safety tips or rules and any updates, changes and last-minute reminders. Or, should the worst happen, cancellation notifications!

7. Calls for community engagement

Urge local community members to get involved in local events, charity activities, upcoming resident meetings and other activities through SMS. You can appeal for volunteers and boost civic engagement, promote community initiatives and action opportunities or gain feedback by asking residents to answer quick text surveys or polls.

Another important application is for encouraging people to vote in local elections and explaining how to get involved in local governance or advocacy. You can even send political marketing campaigns through SMS.

8. Automated payment reminders

Many businesses already use SMS for payment reminders, and governments can do the same to encourage residents to pay utility bills, local taxes and other fees on time. It's easy to include the amount owed, due dates, instructions on how to pay or a location pin for the nearest payment collection centre. Or simply attach a website link in your text, directing recipients to an online payment portal.

Also, consider using text messaging to communicate planned maintenance or repairs information, energy conservation tips and how to access help for billing and payment queries.

9. Crime alerts

Keeping communities safe is a top priority for all local governments. Why not use SMS to inform residents of local suspects, criminals on the loose or recently stolen vehicles (with short descriptions and photos? Include the location and time of a crime and explain how citizens can report suspicious activity.

Texts are ideally suited for public safety reminders and tips, live updates on real-time crime incidents and disseminating information about what actions/steps governments are taking to curb crime in certain areas.

How to implement a successful city messaging system

To send mass text messages to local, city or state-wide residents, you'll need to choose an SMS platform, such as Messente. Getting started couldn't be easier:

  • Step 1: register for your free account online.

  • Step 2: set up a sender ID.

  • Step 3: receive your API keys.

  • Step 4: compose your first text message in our user-friendly dashboard.

Messente gives you access to many valuable messaging features, such as bulk texting, contact management, a dedicated sender ID, message preview and scheduling and analysis and reporting. And you'll only pay for the texts you send.

The process is even simpler for public citizens. They can easily opt-in (and opt-out) of notifications and sign up for different services by texting a specific keyword to a short or long code that Messente sets up for your institution. Philadelphia has done this already – residents can text the keyword 'ReadyPhila' to its hotline via the shortcode 888-777 and receive regular city updates. They could also text 'COVIDPHL' for covid updates during the peak of the pandemic.

Person checking mobile phone

Reach citizens, local and wide, via SMS

As a communication channel, SMS offers many benefits to governments and citizens. Texts have a high chance of being read, and they're ideal for urgent communications, such as emergency alerts, weather and traffic warnings, crime alerts, payment reminders and public health messages. They can also help ramp up engagement for local events and community activities and even provide a first port of call for complaints and enquiries.

Start connecting quickly and effectively with residents using Messente's SMS API – create your account today.