Government Is NOT The Private Sector, and It’s Time We Acted Accordingly


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When I read people talking about customer service, social media and government, I often wonder if they’ve forgotten the reason why governments exist, because they appear to be taking the concepts used by the private sector, and trying to apply them to government, without acknowledging that the two “animals” exist for entirely different purposes.

Talk, though is one thing. When I see federal, state, provincial and municipal governments following the lead of social media oriented private and for profit-companies, it drives me nuts. Why? Because I see millions of dollars being spent on some aspects of customer service, and most aspects of social media, without any strategic plan or vision that is CONSISTENT WITH WHY GOVERNMENTS exist.

I also often wonder whether social media and customer service “experts” have any notion at all about the costs of initiatives, or the fact that governments cannot recoup costs from additional sales (usually).

So, I’m Saying It Here, Government Is SO Different That Governments Should Not “Follow The Leader” When It Comes To Social Media

Here’s an example. I hear constantly about the importance of branding and using social media for that purpose for the government enterprise. But governments, with some exceptions for certain functions, DON’T need to brand. Branding involves distinguishing oneself from one’s competitors. Sorry, but government, by and large, HAS no competitors, so it can’t make the distinction. (for more on why branding is irrelevant for governments check out

A similar example. In the private sector poor customer service can (but often doesn’t) affect the bottom line, due to lost transactions and customers. We’ve all walked out of stores because of the hassle of checking out, for example. But can any of us walk out of our DMV and renew our licences down the street? Or decide NOT to interact with the IRS? Of course not.

That’s not to say that I think governments should completely ignore customer service, and treat its citizens badly. On the contrary I’ve spend the last 25 years helping governments up their customer service.

Governments should offer “just good enough” customer service. WOW is NOT necessary. Because social media and customer service COST, and it’s taxpayer money. There has to be a darned good bottom line reason to invest in those things.

There’s Exceptions, Of Course

Indeed, where government departments have missions that depend on marketing, and where one can show (not offer pat buzzword phrases) that upping customer service and social media involvement will result in taxpayer savings, go for it. Yes, up customer service. Streamline for both convenience and taxpayer savings. Yes, use social media for projects that require it.

Bottom line: If you think taxpayers care more about using Twitter to contact you than to have their potholes fixed, think again. If there is not a direct line between achieving your mission and social media, think again. If you think it’s good for government to “have the latest toy because that’s where everyone is”, remember that most people WILL find the government stuff they need without you staffing your organizational Twitter account.

There’s lots more on the differences between the private and public sectors that should be considered before government invests precious and scarce taxpayer dollars in both customer service and social media.


Robert Bacal
Robert began his career as an educator and trainer at the age of twenty (which is over 30 years ago!), as a teaching assistant at Concordia University. Since then he as trained teachers for the college and high school level, taught at several universities and trained thousands of employees and managers in customer service, conflict management and performance appraisal and performance management skills.


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