The role of social for government: five lessons from our time with Queensland Government

By Roger Christie, Managing Director

Last month I was asked to speak to a group of 80 Queensland Government employees about the role of social for government as part of its ‘Expert Series’ initiative. The sessions are designed to improve government services and create efficient digital models of service and information delivery, and a wonderful forum in which to discuss the value of building social capabilities.

It’s been almost two years since Propel was first engaged to help Queensland Government (QGov) agencies improve the customer experience via social service delivery, and I was encouraged to reflect on the lessons we’d learned in that time (you can access an amended version of the presentation here). We initially partnered to introduce efficiency and consistency to the way all government agencies provided social customer care. But since then we’ve built QGov’s capacity to use social data, technologies and knowledge of consumer behaviours to drive decision making at all levels.

The transformation is of course ongoing, but we’ve been greatly encouraged by the willingness of all QGov stakeholders to seek a better way. And it all stemmed from their response to the question: ‘What is the role of social for government?’ Focusing on social media channels would lead down a path of promoting government policy, while investing in social capabilities actually shapes government policy. Fortunately QGov chose the latter, and we’ve since learned a lot about the value of social capabilities on our journey together.

What is the role of social for government: channels or capabilities?

There are now more people who access Facebook than pay tax in Australia, and over 2 billion people use just that one platform worldwide. Yet, despite its prominence in our lives, ‘social’ is still such a misunderstood, overused, underqualified and even overvalued aspect of government operations today. It’s a term thrown around regularly, largely in relation to how to engage the community, or have a conversation with people. And most governments really focus on what they say through social, and the channels they use to communicate — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like.

Does that mean the greatest opportunities for government lie simply in having a presence and engaging with customers on a range of social media channels? No. In fact, our experience with QGov shows a focus on channels only leads both to a disappointing customer experience, and disappointing outcomes for government. However, a focus first on building social capabilities provides agencies with the mindset, data and skills required to meet and exceed customer expectations.

The role of social isn’t to provide channels from which government agencies can simply promote or communicate policy changes; the role of social is to enable government agencies to make better, smarter, more informed decisions that lead to better outcomes for citizens.

That can’t come from channels. It must come from a clear strategic focus.

Where has QGov had success with social capabilities?

We’ve worked with over a dozen agencies in the past two years and have a range of case studies and benefits gained through this approach. For the Expert Series presentation I focused on two examples: one at an individual agency level, and one at a whole-of-government level.

Social data improved customer satisfaction and drove funding efficiencies

In the individual agency example, our client knew their stakeholders were sharing valuable intelligence relating to challenges and frustrations with specific organisations of interest online, and our client was keen to know how they could capture and leverage those insights to improve service delivery.

Did we use any social media channels to address this challenge? No — they weren’t needed. Did we have a social media strategy guiding our activities? No — it wasn’t a social media problem. It was an industry problem, and there were clear portfolio goals and a strategy that guided our approach.

The decision was made to harness social intelligence — one of the six social capabilities — to capture and utilise those valuable online clues, and then inform how offline auditing teams would respond and manage industry risk. Our approach wasn’t dependent on the channels we used or what was communicated through social media; our approach was built on the business need to improve the way industry malpractice was identified and resolved. In doing so, improving customer satisfaction and belief in the system itself.

And while there were a number of key findings (what we called ‘actionable intelligence’) once the capability went live, in one particular example we identified the illegal behaviour of an organisation that was used to tip off the offline audit team, leading to a review of public funding and saving several million dollars’ worth of government and taxpayer dollars. All this without a single Facebook post.

Customer intelligence revealed policy learnings and forged cross-agency collaboration

In the whole-of-government example, we supported a consortium of 11 different agencies. Prior to our engagement, there was a two-speed reality across agency capabilities, with some still dependent on traditional service channels only. Our aim was to ensure any Queenslander, regardless of how they came into contact with the government, would have a consistent, positive experience on social, and that all agencies were empowered with greater customer insights to make more informed service delivery decisions.

We worked with each agency to understand their overarching needs and goals, and determined where social capabilities — like customer care and intelligence — could play a key role meeting agency and customer targets via a range of business use cases. In summary, we:

  • Built a solid evidence base to prove both the customer and industry need;
  • Reviewed 15 global technology vendors to find the right partner to suit the breadth of agency needs and maturity; and
  • Designed an operating model to support these differing levels of maturity across agency teams — including developing a Centre of Excellence that built government best practice and an Incubator to fast-track development for less mature agencies.

Agencies of course used Facebook or Twitter to manage actual service interactions with their customers, but the focus was helping those teams understand why social customer care was such an important capability to have, and how it could reduce cost to serve or improve customer experience. Very rarely are these sorts of outcomes possible with a focus on social media channels alone.

When you boil it all down, investing in social media would have improved how Queensland Government communicated its intent to improve the customer experience. Investing instead in social capabilities simply improved it.

Five key lessons to change the role of social for government

So what have we learned through these and other experiences with QGov that can be adopted across other public and private organisations? Focus on five core elements:

  1. Mindset: reposition the conversation around social away from channels towards capabilities. That means discussions with leaders must focus on the outcomes and overarching goals social can contribute to, not the channels or tools used to get there. To increase the remit of and value from social, the importance of social media channels can no longer be reinforced over the impact of social capabilities. A practical step here is finding ways to send ‘soft signals’ to leaders showing how social capabilities can support organisational goals, like including social data in monthly executive reports.
  2. Language: there’s a lot of ambiguity around ‘social’ and it contributes to a lack of accountability and measurement. Be deliberate and specific in any references to ‘social’. Is the topic of interest social media channels, social media content, social data, social technologies or social capabilities? Be clear and encourage those around you to follow suit so everyone knows what you’re talking about and what you’re not talking about. A practical step here is consulting relevant teams and drafting a taxonomy for social-related terms everyone can adopt.
  3. Empowerment: at some stage, leaders must commit to building capabilities, and staff must commit to changing behaviours. Empowerment is crucial, both from the perspective of leaders granting license and time to teams, and for teams to commit to re-skilling and equipping themselves with social capabilities. Practically speaking, map out which teams stand to benefit most from the introduction of more accessible social capabilities like intelligence. Consider who is best placed to put that data to good use and show others the potential on offer.
  4. Strategy: review existing strategy and determine where social capabilities can play a role. What targets can they contribute to and which initiatives will they support? Take the time to put a plan in place and set expectations so all stakeholders are clear. But focus on a strategy to build social capabilities, not social media channels. And ensure initiatives of greatest importance to senior leaders are prioritised over those easiest to complete.
  5. Measurement: without evidence, no leader should feel obliged to fund social initiatives. And investment won’t be justified through social media metrics — determine which business metrics can be addressed and how. If you have technical or analytical resources in your team, leverage those. Or seek those skills out from within the organisation or even externally if you have to. Future leadership investment and commitment to social capabilities depends on the ability to show returns based on what matters to leaders, not what industry suggests ‘success’ looks like in social media.

Commit to shifting the conversation from channels to capabilities

I was talking to an industry colleague about this thinking the other day and he referred to it as a ‘paradigm shift’. It is. As a collective, government — and all industry for that matter — must stop looking to channels as the answer to the massive shift in consumer behaviours and expectations. If you think the answer is Facebook, you’ll be sadly disappointed.

In the words of former DTO head, Paul Shetler: “Without that mandate to change, it’s naive to expect an organisation that is very comfortable with its way of working to decide to spontaneously transform itself.”

If you want to keep investing in social media channels and building communities, you can. And it’s likely no one will stop you. At least in the short term.

But if you want to play a role in improving customer experience, enabling better outcomes for citizens and have the confidence of knowing your social investments are contributing to organisation goals like QGov, you must commit to change yourself and work towards shifting perceptions around social.