Described by British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2015 as “One of the greatest unsung triumphs of the last parliament,” the Government Digital Service (GDS) has since garnered much praise for driving the digital transformation of the UK government.
Established in 2011, GDS has helped the Cabinet Office apply technology and innovation to reinvent the way the state delivers public services, in part through GOV.UK, a central website for all government departments.
Georgina Goode joined GDS in 2014, as Head of Social Media, to devise content and community building strategies to engage the public in UK government’s new digital public services. In light of her team’s success in growing traffic to GOV.UK, we spoke with Georgina about her work, and to learn her views on ways governments can best leverage social media.
How would you describe your group’s approach to social media for the UK government?
GG: We see social media as very much an extension of great service delivery to our GOV.UK platform, in terms of how we engage users, design new content and provide data and insight.
Our role is to signpost users to the right information at the right time, to provide support, as you would expect from any online service, and to provide data and insight to wider teams across GDS, for example GOV.UK operations teams, user research and GOV.UK content teams. This is so, what we learn from our users on social can be fed back into wider programs of work, designed to make the delivery of government services even better. We very much embody GDS’s core principle for digital transformation – helping support the delivery of services that are ‘Simpler, Clearer, Faster’.
Tell us about the primary social media channels you use at GDS:
GG: The bulk of our social activity takes place on Twitter of which we have two accounts, each with distinct audiences, depending on whether we are communicating public service announcements, new regulations, program information etc. Among them, we operate @GOV.UK, which is one of the largest government Twitter feeds in the UK.
We also leverage channels such as YouTube, Flickr, and LinkedIn, particularly as part of our corporate work on behalf of GDS to communicate with audiences such as wider civil service, media and the digital and tech industries. We continually push ourselves to improve and test new tactics, especially to invite user interaction and feedback that can bring value to other teams across GDS. We’ve seen great results, such as growing one of the largest Periscope communities in government for our expert Q&As, and achieving impressive LinkedIn user engagement scores that far exceed the industry average. It shows that when you’ve got great content on the right channel, it can be extremely effective for audience engagement.
So you believe that social media has a role to play in supporting government service delivery and improving operations?
GG: Absolutely. Social media is where users come to ask questions and, of course, vent. There definitely is a user expectation that service providers are present on these channels and governments around the world can’t ignore this.
That said, it’s important to understand that social media is not going to fix services that are broken or poorly designed - in fact, it will only make things worse. That’s why we are so focused on providing data and insights from social media, in supporting other research sources, to help understand user needs and constantly improve service delivery. It’s all well and good to shout from the roof tops about your digital services, but ultimately it’s the services that need to speak for themselves, by working well and fulfilling user needs.
Can you give an example of a social media campaign that shifted user behavior?
GG: A good example of this is how we are bringing government transactions into the social media newsfeed. For instance, 2015’s General Election – we wanted to drive traffic and registrations to the new Individual Electoral Registration service which was replacing an outdated household registration process. The service itself is fantastic and meant users could register their details in under three minutes.
We tested a series of Twitter Cards with strong calls to action, imagery and trackable links. From one card alone we were seeing conversion rates of 30 percent – that’s users clicking on the card and completing the registration process, right there and then, in that moment. And that’s organic traffic with no spend on advertising.
That figure is pretty staggering and shows the possibilities available to governments in using social media to help get users to the services they need. Making a user journey not only simpler but more convenient.
How would you rate most governments’ social media efforts and what must they do to catch up to the private sector?
GG: It depends on where a government currently sits on its digital transformation journey, since social media is one small part of that. I would say that most governments appear to recognize the importance of using social media far more strategically than in the past.
In terms of ‘catching up’ with the private sector, we have some of the best digital talent working within GDS as well as across government and GOV.UK as a platform and our social media output is better than a lot of what you’ll find in the private sector.
That said, whether public or private sector, the quality of an organization’s social media ultimately boils down to its overall ambition and willingness to make social an intrinsic part of the business. If that ambition isn’t there, it’s not going to work, whatever sector you operate in.
But does government face unique cultural or organizational barriers to using social media?
GG: It’s really about whether they are ready to embed digital across the organization. That’s a big challenge for any large organization, including a government ministry/department with many hundreds of employees. It must fundamentally change the way it works, including rethinking internal structures, up-skilling its people, or bringing in new digital talent to help. It’s not easy, but the UK government is doing it, and there is amazing work underway by governments around the world.
But doesn’t social media pose additional risks for governments?
GG: The truth is there’s greater risk in not doing this stuff than there is doing it. However, governments must be well prepared to deal with the challenges and scenarios that could potentially come up. That means having comprehensive risk management systems, clear escalation procedures and strict behavior guidelines for your social media communities. It’s about planning and having the right procedures in place.
What about the challenge of keeping up with the very dynamic social media environment?
GG: The social media landscape is in constant flux; that’s a given, but importantly user behaviors are changing and content needs to be driven by this (user needs not government needs). It’s no longer about pushing out content for content sake or jumping on the next shining new platform bandwagon.
Can you suggest some best practices for governments on social media?
GG: I’d sum up my advice in five broad areas:
What’s your next major focus at GDS?
GG: I’m very focused on ensuring we stick with our strategy and maintain standards. I firmly believe that, as government, we have a responsibility to our users to only deliver the very best, so there is little room for error.
We also continue to test and push video and live-streaming tactics, plus are looking into strategies that focus on multi-platform delivery. This is a very interesting space for us – looking at how else and where else users can now access government services and how we can create a seamless experience across all those channels. The opportunities are really endless when you see the number of services government provides, and it’s fertile ground for us. A lot is happening, so watch this space!