Yelp: Now for Bureaucracy, Not Just Brunch

Credit PHOTOGRAPH BY JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY

Earlier this year, a group of moderate, business-oriented Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill, who call themselves the New Democrat Coalition, proposed that the federal government create a “Yelp for government.” In a letter to the General Services Administration, the federal government’s managerial branch, Ron Kind, a Democratic congressman from Wisconsin and the chairman of the coalition, elaborated on the request. It was for, he wrote, “a modern method of allowing those who interact with and rely on government agencies to provide feedback and more directly influence the process of government reform.”

On Tuesday, the General Services Administration announced that it is responding to the “Yelp for government” request in the most literal possible manner, through an agreement with Yelp that will allow agencies to “claim” their Yelp pages, just as salon owners and restaurateurs do, and respond directly to reviews about them. (Post offices and passport agencies are currently some of the preferred targets of criticism.) The point of the initiative, Yelp’s vice-president of public policy, Luther Lowe, told me, was in line with Kind’s request: to give citizens a simple channel to communicate with the government and for the government, in turn, to improve itself. In the past, he said, “The National Park Service, for example, couldn’t claim their pages and respond to reviews and be like, ‘Sorry you had a two-star experience; it turns out that trail is shut down this season.’ ” (The Web site Backpacker has compiled a list of the best national-park reviews. Of the Grand Canyon, someone wrote, “I just don’t understand why they won’t build a road, aerial tramway, elevator, or SOMETHING that gives easier access to the canyon’s depths. To people who say that building anything would ruin the Grand Canyon, I would say this—did building a road into Yosemite Valley ruin Yosemite?” Of Yosemite, someone wrote, “We went for a moon lit hike sponsored by the park and they asked those there to raise their hands if it was their favorite park. Only 20% of people raised their hands.”)

The federal government has been making an earnest effort for the past several years to use social media to improve its responsiveness to constituents—treating them as corporate customer-service departments treat customers, in other words. Indeed, the notion of Yelpifying government is based on the premise that free-market-style competition will improve public services. In many cases, it’s hard to imagine how this might apply; barring emigration, it’s not as if people who are dissatisfied with the Department of Education or the Department of Defense can choose to do business with a competitor. “Part of the problem with using Yelp as a discovery service for many government services is that many times we don’t have a choice for Option A over Option B for government services,” Lowe admitted.

For agencies that have multiple brick-and-mortar service centers, the logic makes more sense. While we spoke on the phone, Lowe, who was visiting Washington, D.C., looked up post offices. One location, near Union Station, had thirty-three reviews, with an average four-star rating; another, on Capitol Hill, had thirty reviews and an average two-star rating. (“I cannot get over the irony of the location of the worst Post Office in United States history being on Capitol Hill,” the author of a one-star review wrote.) Lowe himself said that he uses Yelp reviews of the Transportation Security Administration to decide which security line to use at the airport. Yelp could, in other words, spark internal competition among similar government outposts with customer-service functions.

When I asked Phaedra Chrousos, an associate administrator at the G.S.A. who is focussed on citizen services and innovative technologies, about this possibility, she told me, “I think it’s human nature to compare yourself against your peers. I can’t predict what’s going to happen, but it doesn’t seem implausible.” She added that she doesn’t see this as a uniquely private-sector phenomenon. She also described Yelp as just one of several tools people can use to give feedback to the government; agencies also have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, and the government recently started testing a program called Feedback USA that lets people give feedback at physical kiosks in passport agencies and Social Security Administration card centers.

So far, the Yelp announcement hasn’t spurred people to review government agencies en masse, but the idea that those agencies will soon be reading posts has inspired some activity from those who are dissatisfied with government generally—raising the specter that Yelp could soon become a locus for Tea Party-style protests. On Wednesday morning, for example, Stephen Schoenhoff, a realtor in Hawaii, read somewhere that the Presidential candidate Carly Fiorina had posted a negative review on Yelp about the T.S.A. Schoenhoff, a Canadian who moved to the U.S. more than a decade ago, feels that the U.S. government is too big and expensive. He has also had negative experiences with the Department of Homeland Security (immigration troubles for his non-American ex-wife) and the Department of Education (huge, decades-old student loans), in particular. So, inspired by Fiorina, he reviewed those agencies. Of the Immigration and Naturalization Service—a former agency whose functions are now part of the D.H.S.—he wrote, “After the INS destroyed my family I swore I would never accept citizenship in this hypocrisy-laden ‘democracy.’ ” On the Education Department: “This agency should be one of the first to be cut if and when America steps back from the brink and reclaims her liberty and her government.” He is still awaiting the departments’ responses.

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