A few years ago, business would have scoffed at the idea of learning anything from government.
Today, in some areas, government leads the way and private enterprise should be taking notes.
Last month the Independent told us about a tiny town called Jun in the south of Spain whose miniscule population of 3,500 (about the same amount of people that went to the Welsh Perry and Cider Festival) which has built its whole communication system around Twitter.
In fact, it’s been so embraced that the blue bird of the logo takes pride of place where once hung a portrait of the King.
In Jun, everybody tweets: the community tweets the mayor, the policeman (singular), the street cleaner…
Official Twitter accounts are prominently displayed for example on police cars and official uniforms pic.twitter.com/EWlfHIilVV
— Tony Wang (@TonyW) June 21, 2013
The council even tweets the day’s lunch menu at the local primary school. Town hall events are broadcasted live over Periscope, and obituaries are made public in 140 characters.
A resident spotted that a street light was no longer working and contacted the council. Four minutes later the light had been fixed by the council’s handyman, a photo sent as proof – all via Twitter.
If this sounds remarkable to UK readers, Spanish residents are even more flabbergasted. Across Spain, people have long given up hope of getting action out of their local governments.
In their view, Jun’s civil servants all look like Duracell Bunnies.
Sure, it’s easy for the public sector to be open with its constituents, they’re not making profit from them. But businesses should try to make commonly used public communication channels their main communication channels.
Here’s what they could learn from some of the world’s most forward-thinking public sectors:
1. Public communication changes audience behaviour
Jun’s mayor, Rodríguez Salas, has embraced Twitter as the dominant channel through which the council communicates. Mayor Salas says Twitter’s directness makes people more aware of how giving their feedback can have real effects.
He told the Independent:
When we have a problem we usually go to the nearest bar and grumble about the mayor or president, but the problem remains. Thanks to Twitter, people can complain directly, which helps us grow as politicians.
Consumers will believe (rightly) their opinion counts when it is shared publicly. The resource now dedicated by many companies to handling social media complaints is testament to that.
If the rest of the conversation happens elsewhere, what you can see is not a real representation of the situation. That’s bad for the company and bad for the audience.
Businesses are usually afraid that if they publicise their channels of customer communication, someone might say something bad about their product or service, but if people have an opinion they want to share, they’ll do it whether you like it or not.
Instead of letting a few stray reviews dwell on Yelp or TripAdvisor, companies are starting to embrace and host reviews and customer feedback.
In making them public, they’re realising that it forces them provide better services and make better products. They get far more insight because people want to share opinions with strangers publicly.
We’ve broken through the heavy, creaking bureaucracy that has occupied public office in Spain for the past 300 years. Residents traditionally don’t participate in local government because they believe their opinions don’t count.
With independently collected consumer reviews, the effect is the same. Instead of a typical 2% response rate to customer satisfaction surveys, we see 20% of consumers sharing their views publicly.
2. Public communication changes staff behaviour
Resolution times of four minutes are the envy of any company, whether that’s to fix a street light or answer a customer query.
Something happens when things go public. Something precious goes up in value: attention.
Mayor Salas says:
The employees, whose work was previously not appreciated, now take pride in achieving their tasks. It brings residents closer to the administration at the same time.
Surely this holds true for company employees as well.
3. Innovation gets attention
The mayor has 334,000 followers on Twitter. Jun’s police department has over 3,400, one of which is the New York Police Department.
The NYPD also copied Jun’s example of putting its Twitter handle on police cars last month. Businesses that innovate in this area and report success will get attention.
4. It is hard to be simple, but worth trying
The governmental web portal GOV.UK has many admirers. It’s sublimely simple in visual design, in language, in overall user experience – way beyond the level of intuitiveness provided by the average business.
Many websites seem to have FAQs written in marketing speak rather than the way their audience actually writes; they were probably written before go-live and never updated.
GOV.UK describes tasks the way that citizens talk about them, and not the way that old school civil servants talk about them (“form 2b, article 7”). They have pushed edge cases to, well, the edge.
Most businesses can learn a thing or two from this.
5. Open data creates a living ecosystem
Many big cities now publish their transport data freely, leading to numerous apps for citizens to choose from to get around town.
The MBTA has been publishing its data of the greater Boston area for years, as has London.
Whereas many small companies have embraced the open model and publish a selection of their data, bigger enterprises are still lagging behind bigger government agencies.
In various countries around the world, the authorities have followed the example set by the US with data.gov, which published open data from weather to farmers’ markets, public spending by region. Basically anything a data lover would kill to get their hands on.
While it may be scary for companies to publish data or publicise feedback, the benefits far outweigh the downsides.
Those companies who open themselves up to honest input from customers will end up with a business model made by – and for – its target market.
After all, if democracy is all about the people, and so is business.