Friday, March 20, 2009 Weekly Column: A Common Sense Case for Using Twitter to Engage Citizens

Over the weekend I tweeted a link to a twitter update that I got via an RSS feed I have in place to monitor twitter chatter regarding my department. In it @graceeechen said:
EVERY FEMALE Service Canada phone representative I spoke w/ was the biggest condescending b****! but the MALE ones are SO incredibly nice!
[Note that @graceeechen's updates are not protected and appear in the public timeline, hence I have no problem with linking to the information.]

When I tweeted the link, I noted that this is why Government departments should be monitoring twitter chatter. My tweet sparked a conversation where others voiced their disagreement given the flavour of the tweet in question, and I admit my initial reaction was similar: this tweet is hardly the model for meaningful feedback. It is hard to see value in it for four reasons:
  1. 140 Characters is most likely insufficient to address the issue in a meaningful way.
  2. It is easy for a reader to infer that @graceeechen is generally dissatisfied with service she receives from female client representatives regardless of service provider.
  3. The way @graceeechen expresses her opinion has very little immediate value to the service provider against which she is complaining (Service Canada in this case)
  4. @graceeechen's tweet seems to offer very little promise of value down the line; i.e. it doesn't look like an opportunity to engage without risking deterioration.
Yet, I was (and still am) compelled to move beyond my initial reaction. I am compelled because:
  1. 140 characters may be insufficient in a single iteration, but nothing limits the exchange of tweets or the suggestion of moving the discussion from twitter to a different medium
  2. It is easy to overlook the fact that @graceeechen was very satisfied with the service she received from the male client representatives at Service Canada.
  3. The lack of context around the complaint renders me unable to judge what exactly happened in her interactions with Service Canada.
Let’s for a minute consider a hypothetical situation:
What if @graceeechen was asking for information about Nobody's Perfect and felt discriminated against?
According to Service Canada's website, Nobody's Perfect is a program delivered by the Public Health Agency that aims to help "parents who are young, single, socially or geographically isolated or who have low income or limited formal education".

What if what she thought was "condescending" is actually some part of a larger pattern, which is to say that maybe other people have had similar complaints when trying to access the same information.
Again, this is just hypothetical, but unfortunately, if we don't engage, we will never know.

If you think that my hypothetical above is reaching then consider this: as it stands right now, there is nothing in that tweet stream except @graceeechen's initial complaint.

Luckily, for Service Canada, she is a relatively new Twitter user and has only 30 followers. Unfortunately for Service Canada, 30 people who have all chosen to subscribe to her updates, have been notified of her disdain for the service she received. Arguably the comment from someone they know is far more valuable to them then any Service Canada commercial, no matter how clever. (Note that I wanted to link to the commercial, but Service Canada doesn't have a youtube presence.)

One bad experience, quickly passed along to 30 other people. Technology like Twitter is accelerating the speed at which word of mouth travels. When word travels this quickly, it places greater importance replying promptly.

So let’s consider what might have happened if someone from Service Canada jumped in, apologized, asked her to substantiate her complaint and to identify something that would have made her experience with Service Canada a better one (in 140 or less):
@graceeechen Sorry your experience with Service Canada fell short of your expectations; we are looking to improve service. Any suggestions?
Now there are a whole spectrum of possibilities that could arise out of this invitation to dialogue with the government, but in their simplest form they would look something like:
  1. @graceeechen engages and provides value
  2. @graceeechen ignores the tweet and moves on
  3. @graceeechen responds with inflammatory remarks
If she responds and engages in dialogue, Service Canada gets direct feedback while conveying the message to @graceeechen's 30 followers that Service Canada is interested in improving its service delivery because they will all get the @graceeechen updates directed at say, @ServiceCanada (btw that twitter id is already taken by twitter squatter).

If she ignores the tweet and moves on, it still shows up in the search results and shows anyone listening that Service Canada did its due diligence by following up.

If @graceeechen decides to take the gloves off and be confrontational, Service Canada doesn't look any worse for the wear. In fact, I would argue that if @graceeechen chooses this course of action it actually undermines the legitimacy of her initial complaint, and Service Canada looks better off for actually having tried to engage her as a citizen. If things become uncivil, all Service Canada has to do is withdraw from the exchange. Anyone looking at the timeline will understand what happened and attribute blame accordingly.

Ultimately, I think that whatever course of action @graceeechen chooses is irrelevant. The true value comes from reshaping the relationship between government-as-provider and citizen-as-consumer into a relationship where both the citizen and government are working together to constantly build and deliver better services. Leveraging twitter will allow public servants to create another feedback channel - and yes there is a whole host of issues around that (but that is another post, try reading this in the meantime). These relationships can only be reshaped by bringing citizens into the conversation, or in this case taking the conversation right to the citizen.

Other Opportunities Lost?

Finally, here are a couple of other quick little tweets that show that in fact people are talking about our departments right now. But before you read those, remember that 3 citizens, using less then 420 characters combined, reached a total of 277 people in about 1/1000th of the time it took me to pull this column together.
  1. Why is HRSDC soooo hard to get through? Too much text, very little useful info. Could be condensed into 5 pages with LINKS and Phone numbers by WriterWriter (179 followers).
  2. At Service Canada. I must say, they're very friendly by AngelCastaneda (74 Followers).
  3. Why can't the service canada office get it right?! by Shine2U (24 followers).


  1. Awesome post Nick. As someone who works in Service Canada complaints (Official Languages ones), we must always keep in mind that it's much too easy to disregard a complaint, because "it's just one complaint", instead of trying to understand what went wrong in that person's interaction with SC. I'm not sure what the ratio is, but the number of people who formally lodge complaints is much smaller than those who just walk away frustrated. But they both have just as much impact on the organization's reputation, and it's important to deal with those.

    To me, a Twitter like that deserves just as much attention as a letter to the Minister: both cases are about dissatisfied citizens, no matter the medium employed to express it.

  2. As usual, I always appreciate Nick's approach to each debate, issue, and topic of our mutual interest. This case is no different....that said, I look at @graceechen's comments differently than Nick. I have a few "what if's" myself.

    What if we look at @graceeechen and we replace the word "female" with "black" and the word "male" with "white"? What if we replaced the word "b****" with the word "n****". Would you still care about her comments? I don’t see a difference between what she wrote and what she could have written with my replacement words.

    Who is @graceeechen? What if she was a he and he was a misogynist/racist using twitter to get their views across? What if @graceeechen was an employee of Service Canada disguised as a “client” trying to harass her/his colleagues?

    What would you do as a manager of an employee who said this at work in the office place? What if @graceeechen named names and she/he had a million followers everywhere? Isn't this what we call cyber bullying?

    Just to validate what I think of this comment and of how invalid, discriminatory, inflammatory, abusive, and utterly useless it is…here is @graceeechen’s latest gem that hopefully Telus is ignoring. Here it is verbatim:

    RT@graceeechen “ME (misunderstood 15x & pissed): "f*** u this doesnt work!" TELUS AUTOMATED VOICE OPERATOR: "Im sorry. Would u like a call back?" F*** YOU”