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Can Yelp Help Government Win Back the Public's Trust?

The popular review site is giving public employees a place to directly engage with citizens. Whether that improves services or trust remains to be seen.

(AP/Richard Vogel)
Look out, DMV, IRS and TSA. Yelp, the popular review website that's best known for its rants or cheers regarding restaurants and retailers, is about to make it easier to review and rank government services. 

Last month, Yelp and the General Services Administration (GSA), which manages the basic functions of the federal government, announced that government workers will soon be able to read and respond to their agencies' Yelp reviews -- and, hopefully, incorporate the feedback into service improvements.

At first glance, the news might not seem so special. There already are Yelp pages for government agencies like Departments of Motor Vehicles, which have been particularly popular. San Francisco's DMV office, for example, has received more than 450 reviews and has a three-star rating. But federal agencies and workers haven't been allowed to respond to the reviewers nor could they collect data from the pages because Yelp hadn't been approved by the GSA. The agreement changes that situation, also making it possible for agencies to set up new Yelp pages. 

"I think government is looking to become far more innovative when it comes to social media," said Laurent Crenshaw, head of public policy for Yelp. "This agreement provides a new way to connect with citizens and improve services."

Yelp has been posting online reviews about restaurants, bars, nail salons and other retailers since 2004. Despite its reputation as a place to vent about bad service, more than two-thirds of the 82 million reviews posted since Yelp started have been positive with most rated at either four or five stars, according to the company's website. And when businesses boost their Yelp rating by one star, revenues have increased by as much as 9 percent, according to a 2011 study by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Luca. 

Now the public sector is about to start paying more attention to those rankings. More importantly, they will find out if engaging the public in a timely fashion changes their perception of government.

While all levels of government have become active with social media, direct interaction between an agency and citizens is still the exception rather than the rule. Agencies typically use Facebook and Twitter to inform followers about services or to provide information updates, not as a feedback mechanism. That's why having a more direct connection between the comments on a Yelp page and a government agency represents a shift in engagement. 

"This is absolutely unprecedented," said Teresa Harrison, a professor of communication at the University at Albany and a senior fellow with the Center for Technology in Government. "I don't know if it's been done in any other venue I've heard of."

Yelp has had discussions with state and local governments about creating similar agreements, but none have happened so far, according to Crenshaw. Harrison, however, believes state and local governments would find similar agreements with Yelp particularly helpful.

"Many federal agencies are very large and faceless, but when you go to the Yelp page for your local DMV office or public library, the people who work there are local and so are the people posting reviews. If I was the head of one of those local agencies, I'd be watching to see what people from my community are posting about it."

What may be most intriguing is the demographics of Yelp users: 43 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34 -- the segment of the population most disenchanted with the public sector. The oldest Millennials are now in their 30s, beginning to settle down and starting to pay more attention to government. A more connected and responsive government might boost public support at a time when approval ratings are abysmal (public confidence in Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court reached an all-time low in 2014, according to Gallup).

The big question is whether Yelp reviews will actually lead to improvements in government services. After all, a government agency isn't like a restaurant that can be shut down by a string of negative reviews. The Yelp page for the TSA at Chicago's O'Hare Airport has ranked the agency with just two stars and has its fair share of people venting about its safety procedures and personnel (the TSA has yet to sign up with the GSA agreement). Yet the TSA isn't going to go away -- and isn't forced to improve -- because there's nothing to replace it.

"People who use government services are not 'customers' in the traditional sense of the word," said Harrison. "But everyone is paying for that service through taxes, so it's important that we should have an opportunity to post feedback. Government has a responsibility to not just provide services but provide them in a way that is meaningful and satisfying."

If the complaints are tied to a lack of resources or staff, for example, the head of an agency should be able to use the negative feedback to make a case to his boss for changing the situation.

"Having Yelp reviews for government is a small step, but it can lead to a bigger moment in restoring the public's trust in government," said John Della Volpe, CEO of Social Sphere, a social media consulting firm for government. 

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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