Published 9/10/2015
Author: Renee Ho
Photo Credit: The Washington Post

You used Yelp to rate the restaurant you tried last night. But would you use it to rate the U.S. Department of Labor?

Because you can.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the government’s General Services Administration’s DigitalGov team has partnered with Yelp so that everyone can give government agencies some instantaneous feedback. Yelp is a popular website and mobile phone application that helps people find local businesses by public ratings.

According to the article:

“…the new Yelp section for ‘Public Services & Government’ is a collection of reviews of hundreds of federal and state tourist destinations and buildings, including memorials, courthouses, motor vehicle agencies, embassies, fire departments, landmarks and post offices.”

“’This allows agencies to go in and engage, and dedicate customer service staff to monitoring the feedback,’ said Justin Herman, who leads social media for GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies.”

While the GSA is counting on the success of social media to catalyze citizen-government relationships and accountability, there are some serious questions we should ask:

  1. Is there a real incentive for agencies to use the site? Right now, agencies have an option to launch their own Yelp page but they are not required to.  Some might realize that’s it’s better not to launch a Yelp page if they don’t have the capacity to really respond.

    Leading us to our next point…
  2. Is there a real incentive for agencies to respond?
    The Department of Labor Yelp page has 4 comments (from 2013 to the time of this writing) and a pretty lousy overall rating. No responses from the agency yet.

    It should remind us of how easy it is to set up a platform and complain (or receive complaints) and how difficult it is to actually respond. The White House WeThePeople, an open e-petition site, was criticized for non-response despite petitions receiving the required 100,000 signatures. It’s improved but it’s taken a lot of public shaming and media attention to get better.
  3. Are federal agencies just too big?
    As a user (a.k.a citizen), I feel like it’s me against Goliath. I called the IRS the other day and prepared to enter the massive vortex. After listening to several automated voices, pushing 1s and 2s, being on hold for 45 minutes, I finally got a hold of some semblance of a human being who couldn’t answer my question.

    I could post this story on the IRS Yelp pages (which one to use? There are multiple, unmanaged pages…) but there’s no individual accountability. I could post into the void just as I engaged with the void. Who was this woman I spoke to? I don’t know—no one does— and as a result, I’m not really sure what the IRS could do to fix the problem.

    Don’t get me wrong—there are big private companies that use Yelp or the Net Promoter System to address every customer problem. So size is not really the issue. The difference is, these companies realize that it’s not just about setting up the platform to receive feedback; it’s about creating the management and operating systems to firstly, devolve this feedback to the responsible frontline workers and secondly, rapidly improve.

Tech is sexy. But real digital engagement is much more than pushing technologies and platforms out into the world.

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