One important difference between the public sector and private commerce is that whilst private companies are often happy with any new customers, the public sector are sometimes try very hard to reach the ‘right’ new customers. In the context of this difference, the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can be a double-edged sword.
Good examples of online targeting include the way that the UK drugs advisory service “Talk to Frank” used Habbo, similarly the combined traditional and social media ‘Bernie’ campaign used by South Wales Fire & Rescue to deter fire-setting on the moors (which will be the subject of a future blog post) highlights how the internet and social media can aid good targeting.
However, it does not always work out so well, as the following illustrations highlight:
Health service campaigns can attract the ‘worried well’ rather than key ‘at risk’ groups. This means that staff are busy, people are coming through the doors, but the number of ‘at risk’ people seen can drop, partly because of queuing, partly because the numbers can seem good (it is estimated that perhaps 20% of UK health expenditure goes on the worried well).
A fire service reported to me that when their community safety team advertised, online and in social media, that they would do free safety inspections they were quickly booked up with visits to low risk households, many of whom would have been willing to pay. However, they were not getting to the high risk households (they only had a small team of inspectors). Their answer was to put leaflets out in the high risk areas rather than use online approaches.
Governments often target online learning (or e-Learning) at disadvantaged groups, people who missed out on education the first time round. However, whenever I have been involved in measuring the take-up such courses there has always been a disproportionately large number of people with high educational attainment, because they tend to be the people searching the web for education.
None of these examples mean that the public sector should not use online and social media methods, but rather that the way they are used needs to be carefully evaluated. For example, another great use of online approaches is to facilitate many service users to deal with their own problems, freeing up resources for those who need more help (tapping into the current memes for asynchronicity, DIY, and disintermediation).
What the examples do suggest, however, is that methods developed for the private sector might need tweaking before being applied in the public sector.