Government is running out of excuses for not improving. Every week, new technologies become available for free, seemingly designed to meet the precise needs of government. And now, government has a new citizen engagement tool at its disposal.
Goodsnitch is a free app for businesses and governments that want constructive criticism from the public. Some governments, like Albany, Ore., have already started using the app, and officials say it’s changing their culture and how they approach work.
The app works by allowing users to give feedback to a business or organization. Users select from any business found in Google’s index, and complete a 30-second survey while optionally singling out employees who went above and beyond the call of duty. The data becomes available to that organization via a cloud-based, real-time dashboard.
By making the feedback process easy and fast, Goodsnitch Founder Rob Pace said, more people are more apt to participate, making the feedback skew 90 percent positive, and giving organizations powerful data and suggestions they can use to improve how they work.
“We have a head and a heart mission,” Pace said. “The head is to help people build great businesses, nonprofits and cities. The heart mission is to encourage people, and those two in my mind are very closely linked. In my experience, to build a great team, you encourage them and you build on the successes, and if you find an efficient way to do that, you can produce some pretty magical things.”
Goodsnitch offers basic functionality free for everyone, and organizations that want more from the app, like a customized dashboard, customized feedback messages and more granular metrics, can pay extra for those features. Companies spend $46 billion annually on employee recognition programs, according to a Bersin & Associates study, but Goodsnitch gives companies and governments a vehicle to do it for free.
When most people think of feedback, they get a sinking feeling in their stomach, Pace said, and the process of improvement becomes one of criticism and dread. Goodsnitch takes the opposite approach by highlighting personal achievement and encouraging more instances of positive behavior.
With the massive amount of negative feedback found on the Internet, people assume that most people want to give negative feedback. But a scientific study conducted by Goodsnitch and a partner discovered that the existing feedback systems, which are often time-consuming and relatively difficult to use, are unintentionally selecting for the people who are most dedicated to getting their point across, which are usually people who are furious and wanting to vent about something. And it doesn’t take much to keep positive people out. In an A/B test, Goodsnitch found that a 30-second survey produced 80 percent more feedback than a 32-second survey.
“You just make it stupid simple,” Pace said. “Over 60 percent of the time on our app, they’re just doing a quick shout-out to somebody. Many of these organizations have labor agreements that make it really challenging as a leader to fire somebody, like many of the airlines. So let’s focus on the carrot, not the stick. Let’s focus on affirmation.”
Companies that gather a larger sample of feedback are also able to focus their efforts more appropriately. One Goodsnitch client, a fitness chain, previously focused on the negative feedback they received (about 7 percent) as an opportunity to improve, while ignoring the positive feedback (about 93 percent).
“In the employees’ mind, this thing became Big Brother,” Pace said. “So what they do now is they quietly look at the negative and they make a big deal out of the positives.”
Albany, Ore., a city of 52,000, began using Goodsnitch six months ago and has received more than 3,000 pieces of feedback, mostly positive, with more than 800 employees being recognized as “heroes.”
Katie Nooshazar, recreation manager for the city, has watched the Albany’s work culture change since it began embracing the idea that people would be “snitching” on them. Nooshazar is Pace’s older sister, but admitted that before Albany began piloting his product, she didn’t recognize the impact that Goodsnitch could have on government.
“He told me about it,” she said, “and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool, Rob. Good for you.’ You know, ‘You’re my little brother. Go away. Whatever.’” But in the following months, two things happened that made Nooshazar take her brother’s app more seriously.
The first incident was when she used the app herself to goodsnitch on a worker at a noodle bar in Eugene, Ore. She took his picture and told him what she was doing. “For me, it was a passive, ‘Hey, he did a pretty good job. I’d like to tell him that.’ It wasn’t a life-changing kind of experience,” she explained. “Two weeks later, I’m walking past that same restaurant, and he sees me, the same guy, he recognizes me and he runs out of the restaurant. He comes running up and he says, ‘Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! You’ve snitched on me!"
It turned out that Nooshazar’s small gesture had had a big impact. Most companies don’t know about Goodsnitch, so the startup sometimes has to take proactive measures to let businesses know that people are talking about their employees. In this case, Goodsnitch had posted Nooshazar’s feedback on the noodle bar’s Facebook page. The noodle bar’s executives noticed the post and promoted the employee, who had been a new hire, to the position of assistant manager. He was thrilled and the company officials were pleased that an app had done some legwork for them – they had been looking for an employee with great customer service skills to promote.
The second incident came later when Nooshazar was helping her brother process feedback, passing the goodsnitches along to companies so they would know that people were talking about their employees. One goodsnitch she relayed was about a worker at a Subway chain restaurant in Oceanside, Calif., an Indian woman who didn’t speak English well but who had apparently impressed a customer who had goodsnitched her. A week later, the Subway employee’s coworker called Nooshazar to translate a message of thanks, thinking Nooshazar had been the one who had given the positive feedback.
“They’re both crying,” Nooshazar recalled. “She said, ‘no one has ever told us at Subway that we do a good job before and we wanted to know what time you were there’ – they didn’t quite get that I wasn’t the person who left the feedback – ‘because we wanted to know what you looked like because you must be an incredibly nice lady to have said these things about us.’”
The two workers had gone through hours of closed circuit video footage trying to figure out who had taken the time to leave positive feedback about them. At that point, Nooshazar said, she realized that there might be something more to what her brother was doing, and asked if he would use Albany as the pilot city, instead of another city as he had originally planned.
When they pitched the idea to the city, not everyone was on board, Nooshazar said. “Some of them hear the word ‘feedback’ and they’re all in, and some of them are not sure. Utility billing absolutely hated the idea because people are there, their water is getting shut off. They’re angry, they’re unhappy, and they thought they were going to get these negative people writing what a horrible job they did. We have not had one single negative review of utility billing.”
Instead, she said, people tend to post anecdotes about workers keeping their cool while people are yelling at them. People want to post positive feedback, she said – it just needs to be easy for them.
“I think the impact is that even if our customers think we can’t fix it, that we care. I’m hearing from customers that we care,” she said, adding that the tool is also useful for events because they can fix problems on the fly. The app also has a psychological component, she said, because workers know that people are watching them and commenting about it online, and so they want to do a better job.
“I think it made the customers feel better,” she said, “I think it made the staff feel more motivated at the end of long days when they’re hot and tired.”
The app even caught the attention of the Albany’s mayor, Sharon Konopa, who said that after 19 years on city council, she’s done dealing with all the negativity that gets focused at local government.
“I like focusing on positive things and just making people feel good and have a good, fun community to live in,” Konopa said. “At times, my counselors, I feel, hear more from the critics and they never really are out in the community hearing the positive things. And sometimes people can let negative things kind of weigh on their mind more.”
For government, negativity often becomes the cornerstone of common thinking. Rather than focusing on what’s possible or seeking an ideal vision of the future, decision makers become bogged in criticism and the concomitant regulations. A few squeaky wheels often jeopardize the majority of government’s decision making input.
“Usually it’s the three-month rule,” Konopa said. “People really get mad and rant over an issue, then they forget about it in three months, but once the project’s done, they’ll criticize it until they see the project. If they like it, you don’t hear the criticism. I use our Timber-Linn Park as an example, because we were very criticized for building that park, but last year 60,000 people came out to that park for a festival and nobody questions today the money that we spent.”
Goodsnitch affords communities and governments an opportunity to turn the squeaky-wheel paradigm around 180 degrees. Rather than focus most of their energy on a loud minority of complaining people, governments will be able to allocate their resources according to a more accurate depiction of what a community is thinking and feeling, which turns out to be more positive than negative most of the time.
Konopa believes in positivity so much that she let it be the sole driver of her campaign for a fourth term as the city’s mayor. She didn’t lift a finger, she said, didn’t stick one sign into a lawn, and ran on her name and positive deeds alone to win the election.
“I know there are more positive people in our whole country than what you see of the ones who like to voice their negative opinion,” she said. “But I can’t change the whole world. Albany’s been my whole life, and what I can do to make the community better? I just care about what can we do in Albany and make things better?”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.