In the News

In D.C., Social-Media Surveillance Pays Off

November 29, 2012
Source: The Wall Street Journal

For many District of Columbia government officials, the first email they read at 6 a.m. has long been the overnight police report. But now there is new competition: finding out what citizens said about them the day before.

The local government in the nation's capital is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to a startup to gather comments on Twitter, Facebook FB +0.70%and other online message boards as well as the government's own website. The data help form a letter grade for the bureaucracies that handle drivers licenses, building permits and the like.

The D.C. experiment to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to a startup to gather comments suggests governments are beginning to mirror the private sector in seeking real-time unvarnished feedback.
These social-media analytics services are already common for businesses such as restaurants and hotel chains that want to go beyond the comment cards most customers ignore. The D.C. experiment suggests governments are beginning to mirror the private sector in seeking real-time unvarnished feedback.

"Knowing that every day you're going to get a report about how you're doing, that actually puts you on your toes and makes sure you're doing the best possible job," said Nicholas Majett, head of the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which handles business licensing among other duties.

The first monthly report card for Mr. Majett's department in June suggested something short of the best possible: a "C-" grade. Consumers complained about a confusing website, onerous requirements and bad customer service. "The staff at the front counter of @dcra is real unfriendly and unprofessional," tweeted one customer on June 18.

Mr. Majett said he has since reassigned some employees to jobs where they won't interact with the public and has worked to improve the website. His employees now treat the report card posted at Grade.DC.Gov like a competition, he said.

Earlier this month, one tweet read, "Have to say—the gentleman behind the service counter at @dcra permit center has been so helpful and friendly!"

The department earned a "B+" in October.

The idea for the D.C. program sprouted from a visit by city officials last year to the headquarters of newBrandAnalytics Inc., a technology startup in Washington that was founded in 2010 and has focused on restaurant and hotel clients. NewBrandAnalytics raised $26 million in funding a year ago from venture-capital firms including New Enterprise Associates and Steve Case's Revolution Ventures.

Agencies can see in one place the comments gathered by newBrandAnalytics and respond to them through an online dashboard interface created by the company. That has encouraged officials to interact directly with the public on social networking sites instead of simply issuing news releases, said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent Gray.

Mr. Ribeiro said the system motivates employees with praise as well as complaints. "Before the system launched, there was a lot of trepidation—folks were worried that all we're going to do is get smacked down," he said. "It turned out people were saying nice things, just no one ever noticed it."

The field of analyzing social media for governments is still in its infancy. While many cities interact with constituents through social media, few use it to collect information and an even smaller number use it in a more analytical way, said Satya Rhodes-Conway, managing director of the Mayors' Innovation Project, a nationwide network of mayors that studies policy, including social media and innovation.

One hurdle to greater adoption is the price tag, especially for budget-strapped local governments. In D.C., the program could cost $670,000 over two years, according to the mayor's office. That includes product development, a subscription fee, the dashboards to see the results and daily email summaries to subscribed users such as agency heads and the mayor's office.

Also, the comments picked up by newBrandAnalytics come from a self-selected group that may not represent the average experience of users—in particular people who don't tweet or text.

Since Grade.DC.Gov launched in June, newBrandAnalytics analysts have processed about 24,600 "insights"—or positive or negative sentiments—from nearly 5,000 online reviews. More than 40% of all reviews mentioned "service."

"The unsolicited commentary is richer and more nuanced and more honest," said newBrandAnalytics chief executive Kristin Muhlner. "They can't ignore it."

Grades for 10 agencies in all—including the police and fire departments and the Department of Motor Vehicles—are available at Grade.DC.Gov. The police department scored the lowest in October with a "B-," while the Office of Aging received the highest grade with an "A."

The site also has a place for people to submit their comments directly if they don't want to use Facebook or Twitter.

Other cities may be following suit, Ms. Muhlner said, though she declined to name them because the deals have not yet been signed.

"No city is going to turn down a meeting with us because they can't pretend they don't care about constituent feedback," Ms. Muhlner said. "Whether they want to do anything about it is another question."