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Report: Effective Government Outreach Requires Social Media

The role of social media in citizen-government interactions has steadily increased in recent years as the public becomes more reliant on the medium for real-time information.

In the past two years, the number of citizens who believe it is a priority for government to integrate digital services with social media has doubled to 40 percent — this according to an annual report by Hootsuite called The State of Social Media in Government in 2018

Americans are increasingly making it clear that they expect the same level of service from government as they enjoy with brands in other industries, the report said. And these expectations are made apparent in other studies as well. In a survey of more than 3,000 U.S. citizens conducted by Accenture in mid-2016, 85 percent of respondents said they expect the same or higher quality from government digital services as they do from commercial organizations, up from 73 percent in 2014. 
According to Lindsay Crudele, the principal for Crudele Digital, it is “important to work within a city department with a set of goals for your communication,” and then to acknowledge and implement the set of goals for the whole governmental body overall. 
To say that Crudele believes in this process and has been effective using it is an understatement. She was the city of Boston’s first social media director, responsible for setting and implementing policy, goals and the training of social teams for some of the 51 departments throughout the city. She was also in place during the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon. 
“Working across a set of goals takes time to implement,” she said, “but it also helps you prepare to use social media in a crisis.”
In the aftermath of the terrorist bombing, the social media plan allowed the city to connect with constituents, “quickly reach the public” and disseminate reliable information.

According to Hootsuite’s Guide: Social Media Metrics in Government, governments need to understand what they are trying to achieve with social media. Each government agency has a unique mission and its own strategic needs for providing services to the public. Your social media measurement must link back to your agency’s stated goals to be meaningful and actionable.
The report also notes that agencies need to shift away from using social media exclusively as a broadcasting tool. While it’s encouraging that 85 percent of governments and agencies are active on social media, they’re often using social platforms merely as digital notice boards. To date, government agencies have scored very low in terms of two-way engagements online. Though citizens might reach out through social platforms, the odds of getting a reply have always been slim. 
By allocating resources to meaningful social engagement, marketers in government can improve service delivery and citizen satisfaction. And with a measurement framework in place, they can evaluate and track the impact of social media on their agency’s bottom line.

Can AI Solve the Problem of Real-Time Engagements?

To understand and realize a meaningful return on their investment in social media platforms, social media managers need to collaborate with the leaders in their governmental organization to identify what social media can deliver to support their agency’s larger mission. 
Crudele cautions that customer-focused accounts need to be monitored to help constituents and not frustrate them. Because the greater community will eventually begin to use your social media account to get questions answered, “artificial intelligence and automation will have a greater role to play,” she said. 
For example, as Boston’s social audience ramped up, more than 1.5 million people signed on to receive information. “This stretched our boundaries,” she said. After the Boston Marathon bombing, there were such volumes of traffic that one individual might be unable to keep up.
“Don’t forget that when you start social media customer service, there is an issue of burnout and coverage,” she warned.
An excellent example of an AI deployment is El Paso’s Ask Laura, a chatbot on the city’s procurement page. The city deployed Laura, its virtual information officer, in early 2017 and, according to the city, the technology has already paid for itself.
Los Angeles has also gotten into the game with CHIP, a chatbot that was introduced last May at the city’s Business Assistance Virtual Network (BAVN), where “he” quickly took charge of helping the city’s more than 97,000 businesses understand how to find contracts, register for notifications and generally interact with the city. Impressed by his performance, innovation officials have also deputized him to deliver answers to potential police department recruits this winter. 
AI might still seem like a future-facing solution, but the machines are already among us. The use of AI and chatbots is increasing rapidly, with over 100,000 Messenger bots now active on Facebook — a 233 percent year over year growth over last year’s 33,000, according to Hootsuite. Chatbots use machine learning to answer common queries from the public, freeing service staff to focus on more valuable and strategic work. The possibilities for government agencies are vast. 
Under President Obama, the White House developed a Facebook Messenger chatbot to make it easier for citizens to submit questions for the president — and with the code open sourced, expect to see other agencies following suit.
Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.