Thursday, March 14, 2013

How the internet makes governments look worse (and what agencies can do about it)

One of the major impacts of the internet on society has been the reduction on barriers to communication. Suddenly people didn’t need to be a trained journalist, media license holder, a wealthy individual or company or to be in the right place at the right time (often just luck) to have a significant public voice.

This has largely turned mainstream media from being a story leader into a story follower, reporting news that was already in the public domain via social media.

It has similarly allowed politicians and government agencies to become their own real-time media outlets, with email newsletters, RSS feeds, Twitter accounts, Facebook Pages, blogs and more allowing them to easily and quickly make facts and figures, or their side of a story, public.

However in lowering the barriers to public communication, the widespread use of the internet has also lowered the barriers to public complain.

Often this has been invited by organisations – both private and public. It is far more cost-efficient to have an online complaint form than people on telephones, responding to letters or sitting in shop fronts.

Most organisations seeking to improve their efficiency and reduce costs have moved their complaints and comment processes largely online.

Additionally many organisations have put a lot of information online, with the aim of addressing simple complaints and enquiries. Again an FAQ or Q&A online looks very tempting to organisations as a way to reduce staff time on common questions and issues.

However there’s a downside that often isn’t considered to these efficiencies. It has also become far more efficient for people to complaint.

The barriers to a complaint used to be quite high – people had to physically travel to a specific location between specific times; or write a letter, put it in an envelope, buy a stamp and go to the nearest postbox. While phoning seemed easy, navigating computerised call systems, waiting on hold and having to actually communicate with a real person in a confrontational manner often dissuaded people from trivial complaints.

However an online complaints has very low barriers to use. The vast majority of people in Australia have ready access to a computing device and internet connection. Most online complaint forms in organisational websites are designed to be easy to find and respond to and where they are not, a person can quickly complain on Twitter, Facebook, a blog or other social channel, not only responding to an organisation but also informing their peer group – which can lead to further amplification of their complaint, plus many other people emboldened to complain as well.

Suddenly, enabled by the internet, there can be a huge increase in complaints, which makes it look as though a government or agency is performing extremely badly – particularly compared to earlier times, when such easy routes to complaining were not available, or complaints were kept out of the public eye.

A further factor amplifies this even further. Due to all the FAQs and other information organisations have been putting online, suddenly people, even those who had trivial or no complaints, can easily find out what they should be getting or what their experience should look like. They can inform themselves through organisational sites and sometimes also through community-run forums, blogs and websites, making their complaints far more detailed and specific.

This adds to the complexity of enquiries and complaints, often making each more individualized and requiring greater effort to resolve.

In other words the efficiencies gained by organisations by putting information on the internet to reduce the incident of simple enquiries and complaints can be more than offset by informed customers and citizens with detailed and individual issues, which require far more staff time to resolve.

Now lets be clear about one other thing. I’m not saying that people are complaining more because government is performing worse than in the past (which may or may not be the case). However because the barriers to complaining are lower, citizens who would have let things pass and coped with a policy or service ‘as is’ are now far more likely to complain than to remain silent.

So the internet has lowered the bar on complaining, while raising the bar on complaint complexity by informing citizens of their rights and obligations – how can an agency use this to their own advantage?

Firstly, the internet allows agencies to conduct far more cost-effective testing of policies, processes and services before they are introduced. By using a citizen-centric approach to policy and service design, using online avenues to model and test scenarios and proposals before a policy becomes law, or a service is delivered, agencies can reduce their error rate and, therefore the number of complaints.

This can lead to real improvements in policies and services, where they are more fit for purpose with the community. It helps reduce the real rate of complaints – which we are only now seeing because the barriers to complaint are so low. In other words, it delivers better government.

Secondly, agencies should see citizens who complain as supporters who are helping agencies improve. Rather than just fobbing them off with generic forms or complex rectification processes, they should be ‘co-opted’ into advisory groups to help inform and improve an agency’s processes and engagement.

This can be done through a variety of approaches, but essentially involves building an understanding of the nature of the complaint, identifying what rectification activities are possible and proposing these in the next iteration of a policy or service’s development. This can be achieved cost-effectively by creating an online advisory group, selecting (complaining) citizens who are prepared to work with the agency in a productive and positive way.

Over time, where an agency can rectify certain complaints altogether, involved citizens can become public advocates for the way in which the agency has engaged and resolved the issues, turning a negative into a positive.

This approach can seem very difficult for agencies, however I have seen it used at bureaucratic organisations quite successfully when they committed to the process.

There are undoubtedly other approaches to turn complaints into positives, however it is also worth thinking about how an agency should empower its staff online to address complaints and concerns online.

While agencies have been extremely willing to provide FAQs and online complaint forms, they have been much slower to empower their own staff to engage with these complaints through the same mediums.

This can be scary for agencies – the concept of trusting staff to respond to the public online raises many risks in the minds of bureaucrats. However there are techniques to manage and mitigate these risks, employing similar strategies to the other channels agencies already use to respond to complaints.

For instance, many agencies already have staff tasked with responding to customer enquiries and complaints – whether contact centres or officials who write responses to Ministerials. Allowing these staff to respond in a managed way through a new channel is a challenge of degree, adapting procedures and preparing standard guidance just as call scripts are provided for phone conversations.

Many organisations in the private sector already have adopted various tools for fast and direct online responses to online enquiries and complaints – airlines, telecommunications providers, consumer goods companies, ecommerce providers and others – from text chat to online voice chat. There’s also been the use of automated agents, a ‘face’ on FAQ systems that provide a more interactive experience, as well as direct responses via social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

These contact approaches are increasingly supported by call centre software platforms as well as by many discrete online platforms, including approval and delegation controls as well as comprehensive logging of discussions.

In situations where online complaints and enquiries are rapidly increasing as agencies encourage the use of online tools for efficiency reasons) deploying appropriate systems for staff is a logical step to ensure these efficiencies are realised, rather than having agencies generate new inefficiencies as they attempt to use existing response approaches to address online issues.

What is needed now is the willingness of agencies to invest in these systems and the appropriate training and support of staff.


  1. Great insights, Craig!

    Another way to look at "complaints" is what John Seddon calls "failure demand".

    "Failure demand is demand caused by a failure to do something or do something right for the customer."

    “Failure Demand: from the horse’s mouth,” John Seddon (2009)

    John is an expert in applying "Lean" techniques to improve service delivery in government. From the Lean perspective, failure demand (including complaints) represents "waste" that gums us the basic value-creation or service-delivery process.

    There are some great examples of Australian government agencies now applying Lean approaches to more effectively undertake the continual service improvement initiatives you highlight as being so imprortant.

    Steve Bittinger, Gartner, Canberra

    1. See also