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Should Government Agencies Respond to Bad Reviews?

As citizens turn to online platforms to voice their satisfaction or displeasure with government services, some social media companies are encouraging the public officials behind those accounts to react publicly.

A closeup of a hand holding a smartphone displaying a Yelp review for the TSA checkpoint in Terminal 1 of the Los Angeles International Airport.
When people need to call a government office, find a local park or get directions to the nearest DMV, they’re likely to use a search engine to find the information they need. But major platforms like Google don’t just pull up a phone number, website and physical address — they also share user-created ratings and recent reviews.

The results aren’t always flattering, especially for public-facing government agencies that interact with constituents who are completing tasks often considered mundane or undesirable.

Government Technology analyzed nearly 12,000 monthly Google Business Profile ratings for more than 300 Iowa state government agencies from 2018 to 2021 and found that public ratings of government services varied dramatically across sectors and office locations.

Citizen perceptions of services varied the most within agencies like the Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services, Workforce Development and Community Based Corrections.


Government agencies have little control over what people are posting about them on most platforms. Google Business Profile users aren’t able to opt out of the review feature. Yelp considers business information a matter of public record.

According to Google, user-generated content may be limited or suspended for certain types of places when user contributions are consistently unhelpful, harmful or off-topic such as for prisons or police stations. Most other government agencies are fair game.

“Community contributions in Google Maps help people more confidently make decisions about where to go and what to do in a constantly changing world,” a Google representative wrote in an email to Government Technology. “Government agencies can claim the profiles for certain types of places, like libraries and DMVs, so that they can update details like the address, hours, contact info and photos and respond to reviews.”

Google encourages government agencies to respond to reviews, and they’re not the only platform to do so.

In 2015, Yelp negotiated a terms of service agreement with the federal government that allowed government agencies to claim their Yelp pages, granting them the ability to officially respond to reviews. A year after agencies were able to claim their profiles, Yelp reported they had a similar terms of service agreement available for state government agencies, and there had been an increase in the number of claimed Yelp listings from both federal and local agencies.

Yelp provided Government Technology with data about the top 10 types of government services with the highest average rating. When filtering businesses to only include those with more than four reviews, public art scored the highest, with an average rating of 4.5.

Yelp Ratings Graphic On Canva by nikkijdavidson

“Yelp is a powerful tool for state and local government agencies, as it provides insights into the citizen-consumers’ experience and allows these organizations to more effectively connect and engage with the millions of people who depend on them everyday,” wrote Luther Lowe, senior vice president of public policy at Yelp, in an email. “We’ve seen government organizations across the country use the data in various ways — including in pilot programs comparing reviews of different locations to see what works and what doesn’t.”


According to online reputation management software company ReviewTrackers, the most common filter applied by users is for listings with ratings of four stars and higher.

A low review rating could potentially impact where an agency shows up in a search ranking on a platform. Google keeps its search algorithm details confidential, but shared in a blog post that “high-quality, positive reviews” can improve visibility.

The blog post also revealed that search results aren’t always based on distance, stating “our algorithms might decide that a business that’s farther away from your location is more likely to have what you’re looking for than a business that’s closer [and] therefore rank it higher in local results.”


Unlike private businesses, constituents don’t have the freedom to avoid all government interactions if they’re unhappy with their services. So does a bad social media rating have the power to negatively impact a government agency?

In Iowa, people were more likely to ask for directions to state parks with higher Google ratings.

However, requesting directions doesn’t necessarily mean constituents will actually visit that agency. State park visitor data released to Government Technology by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources showed little to no correlation between a park’s Google rating and the amount of people who visited the location from 2019 to 2021.

Additionally, the correlation between a positive Google rating and requests for directions didn’t apply to all government agencies. Highly rated driver’s license stations did not receive more directions actions than those with lower ratings.


Do positive or negative reviews have any correlation to whether a citizen is more or less likely to contact a government agency through Google?

The Google Business Profile data for the Iowa governor’s office revealed that phone calls placed through Google to the office spiked from about 100 calls a month to as many as 1,300 calls a month in April 2020 at the start of the pandemic. The office’s Google rating remained the same for several months.

But by August of 2020, the Google rating began to decline while the number of phone actions placed to the agency continued to remain higher than what they were before the pandemic, and before the Google rating dropped. It’s not clear if the increased number of calls and lower Google rating was simply due to public questions or displeasure with the state’s COVID-19 protocols, or whether the office may have struggled to keep citizens satisfied in interactions while dealing with increased call volume.

While online reviews might not negatively impact government agencies the same way as private businesses, the platforms believe they can be a valuable tool for increasing citizen trust in government. In a survey conducted by Yelp and Material, 56 percent of respondents said an owner replying to customers’ reviews would make them trust the business more.

“As a platform that strives to empower and protect consumers, we hope local and state government agencies will continue to use Yelp in their efforts to build connections with their citizens,” said Lowe.

Yelp has a blog listing best practices for responding to reviews, which includes responding to every review in a professional, timely manner.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.