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Connecting with 16.8 million people via 140 characters

How the Dutch central government embraced social media to improve its dialogue with citizens – guest blog by Kurt Goldman.

Digital transformation has become integral for public sector organisations, given that the majority of citizens expect to be able to access public services online and interact with public bodies in the same way they do with brands and companies.

With many European governments implementing ‘digital by default’ as a key strategy to reach younger audiences and to deliver more with less, the reality of integrating digital channels into their core services requires a new approach which public sector organisations can sometimes find challenging. The problem is certainly not availability of the technology, but rather the availability of people with the right skills and mind-set for a different way of communicating.

The Dutch central government, in partnership with our colleagues at arvato Netherlands, has taken this challenge head on to offer social media as a first point of contact for its citizens. The rationale behind the move was to expand their central contact service to new digital channels, not only to become a more open and transparent organisation, but to provide broader access and connect with younger citizens on topics such as travelling abroad, rent increases, digital government and current events.

After undertaking extensive research into Dutch citizens’ use of social media and the types of questions being asked via existing channels and elsewhere on the internet, it emerged that Twitter would serve as both a well-established channel – the Netherlands is one of the most active nations on the social network – and a suitable method to communicate with the public in an open and simple way.

However, Twitter’s 140 character limit and informal style, together with the instant and public nature of tweeting, posed a challenge in requiring a very different way of communicating.

To address this, the partners developed a joint framework around how to deal with a potential lack of control and critical tweets while allowing a greater degree of freedom for handling enquiries. A set of guidelines was defined to empower the carefully selected social media customer service advisors to shape their responses, together with a training programme to help the team react appropriately in different live situations and take conversations offline if required.

In its initial stages, the project was developed as a pilot and steadily extended as the team gained more experience. In terms of continually refining the approach, each Tweet is monitored and measured for effectiveness, with on-going analysis of enquiry topics and sentiment even helping to inform wider Government policy and communication.

Martin Spijker, a senior advisor for the Dutch central government, worked closely with arvato on the project, and told us: “Our service is about connecting with citizens and our Twitter channel has helped us reach more people. It’s a unique platform and you have to embrace the fact that it’s instant, direct and personal – and therefore sometimes hard to predict. But we’ve had trust in the approach we’ve developed with arvato and in our customer service teams who know what they’re doing.”

The project has been a success so far for the Dutch government. With followers growing from 17,000 to 20,700 in one year, the channel is enabling it to reach more citizens – currently 5,000 people per day on average.

A growing number of enquiries are received every month, all of which are answered within two hours. With Twitter proving a convenient and responsive channel for customer service and enabling improvements in existing service channels, more and more public service organisations may be encouraged to embrace social media as part of their channels shift agenda.

Kurt Goldman is customer service solution lead for the public sector at arvato UK

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