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Digital Engagement As Customer Service

Exciting is what big brands do. But for the government, digital engagement needs to be about one thing and one thing only: providing outstanding customer service.

  • You aren’t trying to grow “brand awareness.”
  • You aren’t trying to capture market share.
  • You aren’t trying to build a brand premium.

No, what you ought to be doing is carrying out the mission, and digital engagement (a.k.a. “social media,” although this term really covers everything to do with the online experience) is actually part of that — not separate from it.

Within the government, for a lot of reasons, I sense that digital engagement has significantly shifted and that the focus is now far more on customer service than it is on content-sharing. As follows:

  1. Operational Focus, Not Branding Focus: For a long time, branding was a “hot topic” for agencies, principally because they felt like their “image” was “disjointed.” At this point, after having worked for the government for more than a dozen years I think we have established that the image thing is not going to come together, and that the time and effort spent worrying about how you look is far less worthwhile than time and effort spent actually getting the job done well.
  2. Partnership Focus, Not Standalone Focus: Because the government is funded as a series of individual entities — programs, offices, agencies, Departments — because people want to keep their span of control — and because executives are distinguished by the types of initiatives they can claim, the tendency has always been to stand up “your” program, fund it and grow it. However, in recent years there has been a massive shift towards partnership efforts, partly because money is tight but also because agencies have recognized that there is an additive effect (one might say “co-branding”) when two or more agencies work on an effort together, or when there is public-private-academic investment in a worthy and profitable social goal. When it comes to digital engagement, the axiom is that you want people talking everywhere about information they got from a single source. So the fewer jumps and clicks to get authoritative data, the better: Partnership portals are an excellent opportunity to reduce the burden on the customer.
  3. Interoperability: For a lot of reasons, the government is moving towards the standardization of data such that multiple information repositories can be made to speak with one another. This is important because from a customer service point of view, the citizen often wants to find information that is in the government’s possession, and they don’t want to have to search in a million places to get to it. The focus should be on making it easy for people to find what they’re looking for by ensuring that the data they seek can be “mashed up” from a variety of sources into a single searchable space.  
  4. Stamp of Authenticity: In a  virtual world, people look for information where they look for it, or where the search engine takes them. And it is therefore important to provide them with assurance that the data they are seeing is valid. Offering a code stamp that can be affixed to genuine government data is another kind of customer service that is inextricably bound with digital engagement.
  5. Video Demonstrations of Customer Service Scenarios: People nowadays do not read. They do however watch, they scan, they go to videos, and they absorb instructions well through instructional modules. If you have a form that you want people to fill out, or if you expect them to undergo a certain type of government process (e.g., and interview) having videos readily available online cuts down on the customer’s confusion and anxiety and helps them comply with what’s required.
  6. Instant Access To Customer Support: The concept of offering instant help through chat, artificial intelligence, and customer support is a given in private industry, but still challenging for agencies. These forums make it possible for the busy and impatient taxpayer to get the help they need without a hassle and are also a necessary ingredient in the totality of a digital engagement strategy, both when it comes to employees and when it comes to outside inquiries.
  7. Customer Feedback: It goes without saying that people should be able to rate the quality of their experience with the government in a public, transparent way. This incentivizes agencies to offer better service and builds up trust and accountability with the public — a “win-win” on both sides. While some may worry that people will take the opportunity to “trash” the agency, it is more likely that such “trolls” will only annoy other users, and given the opportunity such users can “upvote” or “downvote” others’ feedback, as well as comment on it; official answers can also be marked with a star or similar icon.

The roles associated with the new digital engagement environment are similar to the traditional one: high-level sponsor, executive (leader/strategist), digital lead (oversight and team manager), contracting and project managers, web and social media experts, writers and designers, and administrative support. Ideally, also one would have an individual on staff fluent in taking both qualitative and quantitative metrics from customers so that progress towards clearly articulated goals can be assessed.


All opinions my own.

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