Why Engage Citizens Online? All They Do is Complain Anyway!

Home Forums Technology Why Engage Citizens Online? All They Do is Complain Anyway!

This topic contains 21 replies, has 14 voices, and was last updated by  Sterling Whitehead 8 years, 7 months ago.

  • Author
  • #99738

    The Pew Research Center just released its “Government Online” study, and it reveals some fascinating statistics. If you are engaging citizens online, this study will help you better understand citizen behavior. If you need to make the case for social media adoption, it will arm you with concrete data.

    In tandem with the study’s release, GovLoop is teaming up with Pew to learn more from you, the government employees who are interacting with citizens online. We’re asking a series of thought-provoking questions based on the survey results. This week’s question is:

    “Why Engage Citizens Online? They Only Complain Anyway”

    Our hunch is that many stakeholders who continue to resist the adoption of social media in government are concerned that most conversations with citizens will devolve into a “gripe session” or serve as a convenient outlet for people to express their views in ways that are unproductive and a waste of valuable, limited government resources.
    Is this true for your agency? Is this one of the reasons for resistance to social media?
    If you are engaging citizens online already, is this the reality? Or are you finding that people predominately provide great feedback and engage respectfully?
    Have your say!
  • #99780

    Sterling Whitehead

    This is a tough question to answer because I’ve been on both sides — taking complaints and giving complaints. Still, let’s see what we have here with Pros, Cons and Potential Solutions.

    Engaging Citizens Pros
    – Makes your agency look pro-active.
    – You get access to ideas (solutions and problems) you may not know about.

    Engaging Citizens Cons
    – Yes, often it probably will turn into a gripe session. I have experienced this.
    – Occassionally crazy people will get through and annoy you…even spam you. This has happened to me.
    – If customer/constituent service is part of your job, then this is another medium to you have monitor.

    Potential Solutions
    – Ignore the general complaints; focus on the specific complaints.
    – Advertise engagement as a solutions tool, not complain tool. Tell people to only come to you with potential solutions to specific problems.
    – Tell people to complain through email and phone calls.

  • #99778

    Meyer Moldeven

    Re: “Why Engage Citizens Online? They Only Complain Anyway.”
    That title suggests to me that the ‘citizen’ is of the ‘general public’ and needs assistance or understanding from a gov’t official. I worked in an IG shop for many years, and investigating civil service and military complaints to the IG and preparing replies to Congressional Inquiries were a significant part of my duties. My experience is that most military and civilian people in government service don’t “…Complain Anyway.” They do know when they’re getting a brush off.

    About Congressionals, the following is from a gov’t pamphlet.

    Members of Congress hold their office by the vote of their citizen- constituents. Public Law entitles constituents to correspond with their elected officials, who, in turn, will seek answers, information, and resolutions from government agencies. —– soldiers, members of their families, civilian employees, or anyone else may ask their elected officials to help them with a matter involving them and/or the Department of the —-. Members take very sincere and active interest in their constituents’ problems and will insist each inquiry be given sympathetic consideration, equitable treatment, and timely response. Mike

  • #99776

    Carol Davison

    I don’t care for the negative implication of this blog either. Most citizens are reasonable. A few are unreasonable. Some are in competition with you. That is life everywhere.

    Yes I prefer to deal with appreciate customers by email because that is most pleasing and efficient, but I “scrub the toilets” if that is what is required.

  • #99774

    Jon Juane

    Just to throw in my two cents from up here in Canada…

    I worked for 4 years in an in-person Government office called Service Canada and we provide support and assistance to the public for the majority of our Federal Government programs and services, including our pension programs and employment insurance. What i found fascinating was that the public actually had some wonderful ideas on how the public service could improve, mind you a lot of their ideas were disguised in the form of a complaint, but if we were to intelligently analyse the comments that are being made about our Government services, we might happen to pleasantly surprise the public.

    A clear example of this could be the fact that many Canadians have a hard time accessing information on our website. This could stem from a variety of issues, however if we were to look attentively at their comments we might find the root issue and solve the base of their frustrations.

  • #99772

    Emi Whittle

    Complaints are just another form of communication — and that is one of the many freedoms we enjoy – the right to criticize our government!! It is important to read and hear complaints because they can inform us as to what the perception is, what may not have been communicated the way we wanted, what things might need to be fixed, and yes, there are often great ideas hidden amongst the noise! WE should never turn off or ignore complaints!

  • #99770

    Jon Juane

    YES!! i couldn’t agree more! I find it quite sad that a lot of Canadian Government departments that are trying to “engage” with citizens by having a social media/online presence often block the comment section… by doing so we are cutting off the beautiful thing about online media… people are supposed to collaborate and comment! everyone has a voice, and the best ideas win.

  • #99768

    Jon Juane

    I think it is very interesting that this list of pros and cons are only from a Government/employee perspective. If you were to reconsider the pros and cons of engaging citizens from a Citizen/customer perspective I think it would be quite clear that it is way better for THEM, even if it might cause a little more work for us.

    I really like the suggested solution to advertise engagement as a solutions tool, not a complaint tool. Although, I don’t think it is the public’s job to present solutions to the problems they identify. I think that is our job, mind you this is just a matter of opinion. I can’t deny it is WAY more helpful when someone presents a criticism in a constructive way, but if the Government was being criticized a lot on a certain topic, the volume of complaints should identify an issue that needs to be improved don’t you think? I think better listening and understanding could lead to better solutions to the problems.

  • #99766

    Brandon Jubar

    I think you may have misunderstood what Sterling was suggesting. This discussion is about the use of social media — open forums for collaboration. I believe Sterling is suggesting that we should encourage people to address complaints via email and/or phone because they can receive faster, more personalized attention; whereas in an online public forum, it can be difficult to identify and address the specific concerns of an individual. Now if you identify a problem & solution that may impact other people, then that would certainly be beneficial to distribute via social media tools.

    As to disregarding complaints, I believe that was in reference to the generalized statements that people sometimes make. If someone posts a message on a forum saying, “The Department of Labor sucks”, it’s an opinion that may or may not be backed up by a complaint. Personally, I would hope that public servants being paid for by my tax dollars aren’t spending time trying to find out why people are exercising their right to free speech; they should be focusing on helping people who have specific complaints and problems requiring assistance.

    One final comment: I’ve read many of Sterling’s posts on GovLoop and I believe you do him a grave disservice by implying that he is a poor public servant. He is always looking for new and innovative ways to provide more and better service to his customers, and does his best to help others do the same.

  • #99764

    Christopher Dorobek

    You can hear Aaron Smith, research specialist, Pew Internet and American Life Project talk about the survey on Federal News Radio 1500 AM

  • #99762

    Meyer Moldeven

    I’ve processed many documented and oral ‘complaints’ that were initiated by military and civil service personnel, retired military and families as well as from the private sector of the installation’s adjacent community. I cannot recall ever ‘ignoring’ or discarding a communication that was received and recorded in the IG as a ‘complaint’ that could be read, heard (telephone or directly in a personal interview) or a Congressional Inquiry.

    There is one aspect of handling complaints from active duty military that began to appear during the Viet Nam War and has carried over into the present. Online searches for statistics on military deaths by suicide during Viet Nam vary. One source indicated 382 suicides. Currently, media report numbers and trends on military suicides. Stigma, a malicious lie, can contribute to suicide ideation among the innocent.


    Normally, in our IG shop, an active or retired member of the Armed Forces who came to our office to personally present a complaint was interviewed by a military officer on the IG staff. Whenever possible, the interviewer was at the same grade or higher. When a military person was not available, and the complainant agreed, I, as senior civilian, would conduct the interview to get the process underway. When I was on duty as a volunteer ‘hotline’ counselor at the community suicide prevention service, I was sometimes useful to my co-counselors in situations where familiarity with on-base functions and contacts helped. An IMORTANT point here is that my suicide prevention indoctrination and training sessions helped me enormously toward doing my ‘complaints’ duties on-the-job and in giving talks on and off the base on suicide prevention and ‘myths/facts of suicide.

    I am a layman in all mental health disciplines. Nevertheless, hearing and processing complaints and Congressional Inquiries, plus my involvement in suicide prevention led me to post the following item on June 1, 2009 to the U. S. ‘Open Government Dialogue’. The formal posting:


    ‘Suicide Prevention in All Federal Departments’

    Department of Defense components have created ‘suicide prevention’ programs and trained their military and civilian personnel to be alert and responsive to the needs of their organizations and circumstances. The DoD programs lend themselves to being adapted throughout all Federal Departments and Agencies. When the Federal Government (as an employer) adopts ‘suicide prevention’ as an essential element in the health and well-being of its employees then similar concepts and practices will have a better chance in the private sector.

    I suggest a top down policy to all federal departments that will encourage suicide prevention ‘gatekeeper’ training for federal employees in supervisory positions, who hear and investigate employee complaints, interact with survivors of suicide (military and civilian), and others that have duties in law enforcement, security, mental health, supervising conduct of prisoners, and otherwise relevant positions.

    Why Is This Idea Important?

    ‘The nation is experiencing extraordinary stresses that adversely influence people in all walks of life. The number of calls to suicide prevention ‘hotlines’ has increased. Employers have a role in dealing with suicidal conduct, ideation, and attempts. Police officers and hospital staff often see successful suicides. Understanding the phenomenon and how to interact with a suicidal person, including getting him or her to professional help ASAP is vital. Suicide prevention is everybody’s business.

    My blog is at


    (Added as ‘fair use’ on May 6, 2010)

    Excerpt: Clinician’s Corner, Suicide Prevention Strategies, A Systematic Review
    Context In 2002, an estimated 877 000 lives were lost worldwide through suicide. Some developed nations have implemented national suicide prevention plans. Although these plans generally propose multiple interventions, their effectiveness is rarely evaluated.

    Objectives To examine evidence for the effectiveness of specific suicide-preventive interventions and to make recommendations for future prevention programs and research.

    Conclusions Physician education in depression recognition and treatment and restricting access to lethal methods reduce suicide rates. Other interventions need more evidence of efficacy. Ascertaining which components of suicide prevention programs are effective in reducing rates of suicide and suicide attempt is essential in order to optimize use of limited resources.


  • #99760

    Mark Hammer

    1) Do not invite citizen comment unless you have created realistic expectations about
    a) how long it will take before someone can get to it,
    b) how clear and articulated the comment/complaint needs to be in order to be interpretable and actionable,
    c) what sorts of comments/complaints ought to be directed to that particular site/locus,
    d) how likely it is that any individual comment complaint will be explicitly acted upon.

    2) Do not invite citizen comment/complaint until such time, and unless, you are adequentely resourced for processing and dealing with them. Taking 18 months to reply because you have allotted 3 people assigned part-time to plow through e-mailed comments after they have attended to the rest of their job is NOT “open government”, no matter how snazzy-looking the website is.

    3) Do not invite citizen comments/complaints without examples to help shape their thinking and comments, and hopefully examples that have translated into actionable items, and actual actions. So, an illustrative example of “here’s something a person told us, and here is how we were able to make this particular improvement because of it”.

    4) Do not invite citizen comments/complaints unless you are prepared to be honest and forthright in your replies, even when they are generic replies to a cluster of comments/complaints. No one likes a vague form letter that feels like a brushoff.

    The bottom line is that you need to create the sort of environment where citizens will feel like they were heard, and where their expectations are not so unrealistically high that they feel unfairly treated. Part of that IS the response itself, and part is the manner in which their input is solicited. You can’t act on things you don’t understand, and without sufficient coaching, people won’t always give you something you can work with. You need to help them out a bit.

  • #99758

    If you have an effective engagement protocol in place and engage the community around the issues that mean the most to them, the “gripe session” can turn into a productive and cost-effective feedback mechanism. Ask people about their challenges, and when they’ve had a chance to share, ask them about potential solutions.

    In my experience, the community will address outrageous comments and often help one another by sharing advice and lessons learned. Just give people a chance to talk about what really matters to them, and make sure they know you are listening. Redirect specific questions to appropriate resources, and respond to questions that will benefit the community. I learn something new or am pleasantly surprised by community contributions every day.

  • #99756

    Hey Carol – Don’t want to give the wrong impression! I definitely think citizens engage respectfully and thoughtfully whether in person or online…just trying to address a fear that I have heard in speaking to people in agencies who are resistant or concerned about setting up a blog or Facebook page…fear of “the nefarious guest” – the person who just wants to rant.

  • #99754

    Hi guys – just jumping in as your friendly community manager to be sure this conversation stays on topic and doesn’t become a back and forth about people’s character. Love the dialogue and hope it maintains a constructive tone and timbre. Perhaps you can directly discuss the intentions of your remarks via direct messages.

    As always, I appreciate your insights!

  • #99752

    Arvind Nigam

    An excellent example to answer this report is that of the Dell Hell where nearly every customer worldwide complained about laptop/delivery issues against Dell and the bottom-lines were hit.

    Even then Dell chose to adopt social media solution called http://ideastorm.com which initially did see a lot of pressure on fixing things, delivery issues, replacements and all that was making Dell lose brand loyalty. But in a couple of weeks Dell was able to make a positive impact on those who cared to give complaints, coz that’s the genuine market after all. Dell recovered a lot of ground by doing that.

    In marketing researches it is often said, one angry customer complaints to average14 humans about bad service/product while he speaks about a good service only to average 4. What would you do then, chose fourteen angry citizens or 4 happy ones? Think think think,

    CEO – http://bubbleideas.com

  • #99750

    Arvind Nigam

    +1 Jacques. With sufficient engagement protocol it is pretty easy to manage an interactive community which includes ranting losers too. Surprisingly there are enough evangelists and unofficial care-takers on internet who help one fix the ranting buggers or help complaining one’s get over their anxiety too.

    That is how Wikipedia was built from scratch!


  • #99748

    Stephen Peteritas

    I mean engaging customers (aka citizens when it comes to government) is just part of doing your of job. I mean read any review of literally anything online and there is ALWAYS more negative than positive. It’s just the way the world works, people don’t speak up until there’s a reason to i.e they get pissed.

    But regardless of how negative the criticism is you have to take it in order to push through the problem. Granted not all criticism is warranted but still engaging people is a necessity of bettering whatever you organization is whether it’s government related or not.

  • #99746

    Chris Ngo

    The administration system once intentionally turn off the public complaints, deliberately acknowledge hidden agenda, grand slam on democracy, and/or had a dark history in the past in terms of justice against sub- minorities, and now just want to shuffle their voice and their issues under the carpet. We are in a delicate period, disregard of political inclinations, only intentions matter. Thanks Emi!

  • #99744

    Chris Ngo

    This is in reply to Mr. Meyer Moldeven. Sir, do you imply the high rate of suicidal is because of Vietnam War? It is an unpopular war that the Vietnameses never wanted to get involved. Do you imply war casualties & family veterans Americans (who are also my countrymen) should also have a kind of recompensation in order to avoid suicide? A recompensation that lead to a block against Vietnameses, in country or in Vietnam, a policy that America pursuit right after war without any good result? One last question, do you know who or how American media grassroots responded to the change of attitude toward the veterans in a better way more with gratitude? hint: Katrina 2005. Might want to consider freedom of speech abuse, or clean up for a healthier democracy in order to avoid suicide. The very problem of suicide is consumption, self righteous, self ego, power vs. ideology, a self constraint condition of democracy and freedom. The ideal is right but the direction is wrong, is self served agenda through systems networks at the expenses of small minorities/countries who do not have access to voice and representatives. This is just a small opinion with all due respect to you and to the GovLoop. Very sincerely yours. cn

  • #99742

    Meyer Moldeven

    Dear Mr. Chris Ngo,

    My official duties and personal focus during the Viet Nam War was and remains the good and welfare of members of the United States Armed Forces. I do not question your own loyalty and your sacrifices for Viet Nam, as it was and as it is. The War is behind us; your citizens and ours visit each others’ country in peace. I choose that path into humankind’s future.

    Please convey to Viet Nam, the Nation and the People my wish for them all Good Things.

    Thank you for reaching out to me. I understand what you are saying.

    Meyer Moldeven

  • #99740

    Larry Lyon

    I work for a large public transportation agency which is serious about public outreach during the planning and decision making process. You can’t address this situation in a vacuum without realizing that many of the decisions during a time financial crisis are going to result in reduced services and fare increases at a time when many in public are having a very difficult time.

    The decision has to rest on providing as much information as possible and reaching as many people as possible and that means using social media and answering questions. I listen to our board meetings which are open to the public and yes they are raucous to the extreme. That being said, public comments are limited to one minute per speaker and those speakers went through allot to attend the meetings. Use of social media to exchange information throughout would be educational for both the government and the public.

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.