The Myth of Social Media Engagement in the Public Service

Engagement is the holy grail of social media. It is supposedly the yardstick by which all of your social media should be measured and if you do not have engagement then you are doing it wrong — or so the story goes. So I might get raked over the coals for saying this but here it is:

Engagement on social media should not be the goal of public service organizations!

There are two main reasons for this:

First reason, engagement is a lot like cholesterol: there’s a good kind and a bad kind. You want to increase the good kind and decrease the bad kind. Bad engagement is negative, destructive, abusive, or devoid of any value. Good engagement is positive and constructive. Negative comments or criticism can still constitute good engagement if they are formulated in a constructive way that helps you improve your services.

Second reason? The public sector is not, by its very nature, a place where the public necessarily goes for engagement. In fact, most people would probably prefer not to have to engage with you if they could avoid it. When is the last time you heard someone say: “I wish I could engage more with the government over my taxes”?

It comes down to what your audience needs from you. And what the public usually wants when they go to any Web 1.0 or Web 2.0 public sector site is information that is:

  • easy to find,

  • accurate,

  • up to date, and

  • easy to understand and apply.

Engaging with you usually means that they haven’t found the information they were looking for.

That’s why you shouldn’t lose too much sleep over not being “engaged” enough.

Now, just to be clear, there is no excuse for ignoring user comments or questions if they are valid and expressed in a respectful manner. In fact, these attempts from the public to connect with you should be seen as a barometer pointing to sectors where you might need to improve your messaging or your content. If users are always posting the same questions of your Facebook page, it is likely because the information is not available, or is too hard to find on your website. This is valuable information that is given to you for free — make the most of it.

So instead of pursuing the engagement mirage, concentrate your efforts on:

  • Making your content highly shareable so you reach wide and deep!

  • Target your efforts so that you reach the right audience through the right platform!

This is not usually something you will achieve overnight. You will need to work on it and refine your delivery until you get it right. You can start by:

  • Identifying gaps in your communications or service delivery.

  • Identifying your audience and finding out where they congregate on social media.

  • Adding value with your social media content (no rehash or content dump)

  • Providing context for your content (i.e. How does this help your audience; what’s in it for them?)

  • Ditching the bureaucratic tone for one more suited to your intended audience.

Bottom line, don’t sweat it! Don’t try to manufacture engagement. Good engagement is not a goal — it is an organic byproduct of using your social media channels effectively. Take care of your audience and engagement will take care of itself.

Alain Lemay is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Matthew Hall

What about citizens who actually do want to interact with public agencies? Is social media ill suited for these type of interactions and if so, where should citizens go who want to engage with their government?

Alain Lemay

Good point Matthew! Just to be clear, I am not advocating against engaging with the public and I do firmly believe that public service organizations should be ready and willing to do so. Sadly, that is still not always the case. Sometimes it is out of fear of the legal implications and repercussions. Sometimes it is because they are simply not resourced to do so adequately. Some just do not want to do so for various reasons.

But before I throw public service organizations under the bus for lack of engagement, I would add that the public also has to take it upon themselves to find opportunities to be heard if that is their wish. You are seeing more and more public sector figures doing Twitter chats or Reddit AMAs. These are basically invitations to engage so use them!

So to answer your questions, Is social media ill suited for these type of interactions? I think social media is the single best opportunity for citizens to engage with their governments.

And if so, where should citizens go who want to engage with their government? Go where the conversation that interests you is happening. If that’s not on your government’s Facebook page or Twitter accounts, then it’s somewhere else. Go there and keep talking until someone hears you! Engagement has to start somewhere…

Dory Dahlberg

I like the comparison to cholesterol, spot on! I see social media as part of a larger communication / engagement strategy that also includes our website, digital subscription service and traditional offline channels. In all of these areas we’re trying to build an audience, reach out with valuable information, get info back from residents and provide great customer service. Overtime those things can lead to engagement.

It’s true residents don’t usually think to engage with their government, but it is their government, so being available when they decide to engage has some value. The small stream of likes, comments and shares that we see each day are not the shining, glorious engagement we had envisioned and that might make us question the effort. But we are priming the pump, so to speak, for when engagement could occur. Especially in a time of crisis for example. These daily interactions have enabled us to develop the tools, processes and best practices needed when residents decide they need to engage.

Andria "Andi" Cimino

I couldn’t agree more! This point should reassure any senior management out there who are still leery of SM.

Will Hampton

Great post, especially in light of the changes Facebook has made to its algorithm for Page content. A great, easily searchable website is still the best communication tool for government. As for Matthew’s point, there are online programs designed specifically for citizen engagement that work much better than social media (Mind Mixer and Granicus, for example). I see somed as much more of a secondary channel these days.