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Do Yelp Reviews Help or Hurt Government?

Yelp reviews about government agencies, much like restaurants and shops, show a range of positive and negative opinions

Reviewing local restaurants, bars and other city hot spots across the U.S. has become popular on the San Francisco-based website Yelp, but some reviewers are now posting opinions about government services like their local Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) branch office or a nearby state park.

Typically, consumers post and read reviews on Yelp for choosing where to dine, shop or visit. But should reviews about government services on Yelp be a cause of worry to public sector entities?

Those familiar with the reviewing website can find a spectrum of comments and opinions about a particular place, ranging from glowing to scathing. That same variety of reviews also exists on Yelp pages about government services.

On one Yelp page about a DMV branch office in San Diego, reviewers express a mix of positive and negative opinions based on their experiences. While some used the site as a platform to vent frustrations, others used it to either share a positive experience or to provide tips about what to do before going to the DMV, like making an appointment.

Luther Lowe, Yelp’s director of public policy, recommends that governments monitoring content on Yelp to see how constituents feel about a particular department or service, shouldn't worry too much about criticisms posted to the site.

“Don’t freak out about any individual negative review,” Lowe said. “Eighty percent of the time, when people are writing reviews, they’re three stars or above.”

3 Tips to Help Governments Survive (Negative) Yelp Reviews

Luther Lowe, Yelp’s director of public policy, said there are three key tips for any business or government entity to survive a less-than-stellar Yelp review.

1. Stop

Lowe said stop, take a deep breath, and understand a negative review isn’t necessarily intended as a personal attack. Negative reviews come from individuals with a legitimate opinion, and they are trying to share that or offer feedback to improve your operation.

2. Drop

Drop any kind of pretense or attitude, and be willing to approach the person or issue diplomatically.

3. Roll

“Roll with the punches,” Lowe said. “Everyone gets negative reviews.”

Some state departments oversee several smaller offices that deal directly with the public. The California DMV serves as an umbrella over 170 branch offices across the state – a number that could equate to an equal number of Yelp pages. Jan Mendoza, agency spokeswoman, explained that it isn’t efficient for the department to monitor every individual DMV branch office page.

Instead of monitoring Yelp for feedback on branch offices, Mendoza said the DMV engages with customers on Facebook and Twitter. The agency keeps running statistics on how often constituents submit feedback on Facebook and Twitter, she added.

The official California DMV website also provides a survey feature for constituents to submit comments and suggestions. According to Mendoza, since implementing the survey feature in 2011, the state has received almost 200,000 responses.

But unlike the California DMV, some government departments do monitor constituent feedback submitted on Yelp. David Heinicke, head park naturalist and state park police officer for the Brazos Bend State Park and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said the department does monitor the park’s Yelp page every couple weeks.

Heinicke said the department began monitoring the park's Yelp page after receiving a negative review last December when a constituent used the site to complain about the park’s no alcohol policy. The complaint later led to a broader public awareness effort to remind citizens about the park’s rules against alcohol.

“Hopefully other people that read these [Yelp] reviews will find out that, ‘Ok, I’m going to Brazos Bend, I don’t need to bring my alcohol.’”

Heinicke said aside from hearing the negative comments from citizens about Brazos Bend, he finds that it’s helpful to see the positive comments posted on Yelp to find out what particular features people like.

Yelp’s Lowe said for government departments and agencies looking to use Yelp as a way to monitor feedback, it’s best to identify patterns in the comments, and then tweak operations accordingly.

“Maybe you need to reallocate staff to optimize operations according to feedback,” Lowe said. 
Sarah Rich is a former staff writer for Government Technology.