Constituent Engagement, State and Local Government

Citizens Are Talking – Are You Listening?


citizen social mediaCitizens want quality service from government agencies. Increasingly, in fact, they expect the same level of active engagement from the public sector as they receive from the private sector. In short, they want customer service. However, without the revenue and competition pressures of the private sector, the government has been slower to adopt modern service techniques than their private sector counterparts. This began to change in 2010 when citizen engagement became a cross-agency priority goal.  Unfortunately, one of best digital-age techniques to achieve that engagement was also one of the biggest hurdles for government agencies to overcome: leveraging the power of social media.

The immediacy and transparency of social media presented a huge cultural obstacle for government agencies, accustomed as they were to following rigid protocols like sending all public comments through public affairs shops. Social media simply did not lend itself to maintaining the status quo. But once agencies realized the medium was here to stay and the public would no longer accept the “way we’ve always done it” methods of communication and service, agencies and the public sector as a whole began the long shift to more open and responsive conversations.

Today, 26 percent of customers resort to social media after more traditional methods of communication, such as phone or email, have not received any response. What’s more, 35 percent of people want their questions and complaints answered in less than one hour on social. Paul Fugazzotto, Public Information Officer of Digital Communication at Philadelphia Water, said that five years ago, his organization didn’t even have social media. “We realized our customers want social,” he said in a recent government social media expert chat. “Communication has become more user-focused, and we need to orient around customers when we create content.”

While the stance that the “customer is always right” is a helpful approach for an agency to take when it comes to providing good service, they should not dive headlong into social simply because people want it. There needs to be a fit and a benefit for the agency, as well as a carefully formulated plan. Social media management takes time, and it needs to be measured. Agencies should understand from the start that just because it is digital does not mean implementing it is fast; but with an appropriate investment of time and money into a social media strategy, improved citizen engagement will surely follow.

The first step toward implementing a successful social-media strategy is surprisingly simple: listen to the citizens. Listen to understand what is being said about your agency and by whom. The natural follow-up steps involve engaging with those people directly and then measuring the results of each interaction. Many state and local agencies are already finding success in their social interactions based on this outline:

  • Listening: Austin, Texas, is a fast-growing city where local government makes a concerted effort to learn how its constituents feel about issues like healthcare, roads, taxes or even waiting in line at the DOT. The city has learned to do this through open dialogue via social media channels and by recording the results. One way Austin collects relevant data is through tracking commonly recurring key words and hashtags, and there are currently a number of tools to capture useful information. They then use that data to continually look for ways to improve service and communication.
  • Engaging: When the city of Flint, Michigan, experienced an unprecedented water crisis, local government found social to be an effective way to quickly devise emergency response actions and stay in touch with citizens who had questions and concerns. Similarly, the Maryland State Highway Administration created a workflow in social media that mirrored traditional service channels to push requests to the right department using the appropriate geolocation information while keeping the customer apprised of updates to the status of the request throughout the process.
  • Measuring: There are seven main categories of measurement for agencies to look at when evaluating the impact of social media. These are breadth, depth, direct engagement, loyalty, customer experience, campaigns and strategic outcomes. Agencies should use combinations of these metrics based on strategic needs. The Regional Transit Authority (RTS) in Rochester, NY, launched “Tap and Go” as a new type of card to speed up the boarding process and cut down on maintenance issues. They created a how-to video on YouTube to introduce how to use the new card and promoted it over social media on both organic and paid channels. By measuring the feedback from these campaigns, RTS was able to see where customer requests were coming from and what kinds of questions people were asking, enabling them to better anticipate concerns and questions for the next rollout and determine the best channels for reaching the most citizens.

By following this workflow of listening, engaging and measuring, agencies can introduce a well-defined set of policies, procedures and rules – all things that are familiar and comfortable for government – to ensure that customers get the quick and informed response they expect. For more details on how to organize, automate and centralize social media efforts, check out this webcast on-demand.

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