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December 22, 2017

Harnessing citizen sentiment in the digital age to deliver better public services

Many public services, including transportation and healthcare, already use data analytics to understand citizens' true feelings about the services.

By James Nunns

It’s no secret that data has become the lifeblood of every organisation in today’s digital age, and the public sector is certainly no exception.

According to the UK free market think tank Policy Exchange, the UK government could save up to £33 billion a year by using public big data more effectively. In fact, their report highlights that better use of data, technology, and analytics could help the

Carol Brock, global public sector strategist, OpenText

government save money by improving efficiency rather than reducing service levels.

Many public services, including transportation and healthcare, already use data analytics to understand citizens’ true feelings about the services. Transport for London (TfL), for example, uses the data collected by oyster cards, Apple Pay, and contactless payments to track customer journey patterns. This enables them to identify areas that are prone to congestion at peak travel times and highlights where potential new routes need to deployed or reinforced.

Insight into organisational performance can certainly be gleaned from both internal and external data. However, organisations operating in the public sector should consider using this data to help them better understand how citizens actually feel about the service they provide.

With the reality of smart cities just around the corner, harnessing the power of big data to understand citizen sentiment will be more important than ever before. Government agencies and public sector organisations will need to capture data from all sources – internal and external, structured and unstructured – as a way to identify the perceptions and attitudes of their citizens.


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The internet of we: harnessing sentiment

Social media is ubiquitous. Over a third of the world’s population is actively using social media platforms, and that number has risen by 176 million people over the last 12 months. As a result, government agencies and public sector organisations have become much more active on social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as a means to better engage with the public and provide more immediate, personalised services.

Unfortunately, monitoring and analysis of social media has not been widely adopted throughout the public sector, which means that a lot of potential insights are being missed. The statistics for Facebook alone provides an indication – there are 1.94 billion active Facebook users, of which 1.28 billion log in every day. Incredibly, virtually 100% of users aged 18 to 34 spend over 1,000 minutes a month on Facebook. And that’s just one platform.

People around the world use social media to openly and honestly share, discuss, and criticise everything from the food they eat to the politicians they support (or don’t!). Social media is very much “the internet of we” and its power as a collaborative tool (e.g. flash mobs, marches, crowd funding) can provide insights into how people collectively feel about public services.

The ability to analyse the conversations and content can help agencies uncover many vital pieces of insight such as:

  • How well services are being delivered and received
  • Where staff are performing and where they are not
  • Where there may problems that need to be addressed quickly
  • Where there is the potential for unrest that must be addressed effectively

Taking that vast repository of public sentiment and applying predictive analytics alongside geo-location data, allows for a clear view of what citizens want at a local and national level. It also means government agencies are able to develop and prioritise services based on actual needs, rather than speculation or one-sided data sets.


Big data: the single version of truth

While social media remains a powerful and valuable source for defining citizen sentiment, it cannot be used in isolation. It’s important to marry data collected from social channels with other structured and unstructured data sources such as government internal operational systems, enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, call centre systems, voice recognition, and email correspondence. Together, they all add to the data available and help deliver a comprehensive and well-rounded picture.

In order to achieve that holistic view, the public sector needs to centralise and normalise the data so that a ‘single version of the truth’ emerges. This gives government organisations the ability to access the sentiment of key citizen groups broken down by a range of demographic categories such as service usage or location. It also means that they’ll be able to drill down even further to uncover enough insight to deliver personalised services at the individual level.

Analytics tools have largely been reserved for the data scientists or experts within an organisation, but as public satisfaction and safety are paramount in the public sector, it can no longer be kept for the few. Thankfully, advances in technology have ushered in a new wave of analytics systems that are more sophisticated and yet easier to grasp. They’re able to visually display very complex data analysis such as visual dashboards – combining real-time information with simple reports and graphics.

In turn the public sector is able to deliver the insight to inform better, faster decision making. In a crisis or emergency, for example, this level of insight can provide an early warning to prepare the emergency services as well as providing the ability to better formulate outgoing messages, target alerts to particular audiences, and give an agile response to meet citizen concerns.

As the digitisation of everything continues, big data will play an increasingly important role within the public sector. The accurate measurement and monitoring of citizen sentiment will soon become an essential element of the big data strategies for most government agencies. Harnessing the power of social media to truly understand how services are performing – good or bad – and combining this with additional data sources can provide the insight needed to better serve citizens today and in the future.

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