The Government Has a New Way to Tell You What to Do

 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The role of government in the lives of American citizens is a topic that’s always up for debate. Viewpoints on this often differ along partisan lines, but opinions about how governments should get involved in daily life are also highly personal. As companies and groups have begun to use social media to establish more of a connection with potential customers and advocates, it’s become clear that there’s a place for governments on social media, too. Most fire departments, cities, and even states have their own Facebook pages or Twitter accounts, and in many cases use the sites to inform citizens about upcoming activities or public notices. However, it’s also becoming a place where the government can exert more influence on what people do, what topics they think about, and even where to eat or shop.

In most instances, government agencies using social media sites is supposed to work as a way to increase interactions between city officials and people who live in that area. It’s also a way for the government to tell people about what’s going on in the community and try to influence people with information about a mayor’s agenda, needs in the community, or other items. None of this is underhanded or sneaky — it’s pretty easy to see when a government agency is trying to promote its agenda. San Francisco’s Facebook page, for example, includes posts about immigrant assistance, improvements to the city’s transportation system, and encouragements to citizens to learn more about the California drought.

On a national level, President Obama has hosted town hall meetings on Twitter with the hashtag #AskObama. The White House has promoted many of its causes through social media in the past several years, including posts on Facebook and Twitter for enrolling in the government’s health insurance options through the Affordable Care Act. Almost every Congressman has their own social media pages, either run by staffers or themselves, that promote individual bills or causes.

All of this makes sense as politicians and other government agencies attempt to increase engagement between their offices and the people they serve. Now, city governments are starting to branch out by partnering with certain sites to offer additional information about where to eat, and which stores or restaurants are best to avoid. Several cities are beginning to partner with social and digital platforms to share health data and inspection forms with their communities. According to an article by the Harvard Business Review, local governments are beginning to use partnerships between health offices and customer feedback sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor to alert customers about restaurant violations.

Health inspection notices vary depending on the city. Some post the letter grade (A through F) on the front window of a restaurant to alert people immediately about the overall status of the restaurant they’re about to patronize. But in other cases, the old system means that posting is buried on a bulletin board or filed on a municipal website that no one visits. Cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Raleigh, North Carolina now have health inspection information appear next to reviews of restaurants.

One Harvard Business School professor and researcher, Michael Luca, studied the relationship between poor Yelp reviews (in which customers complained about getting sick or about the general griminess of a restaurant) and how governments could use those to deploy health inspectors to those specific businesses. By dividing restaurants in San Francisco between the top half and bottom half of the city’s hygiene scores, researchers could classify 80% of the restaurants correctly based only on their Yelp ratings and written reviews. As Luca pointed out, customers providing feedback on those sites are often looking for the same sort of information that restaurant inspectors are.

With that, the potential for governments using algorithms to deploy health inspectors is huge, as is licensing officials for other service industries like hotels, casinos, and more. But the opposite is also true, in that government bodies can use their influence in greater ways to educate people about where to take their business.

Government influence on private business

In the case of those cities with health inspection information on Yelp, the government is influencing capitalism in a new way. Health inspections have always been required, but governments are making them more accessible and more noticeable to potential customers. Luca points out that restaurants with highly publicized poor reviews often make changes more quickly than restaurants that don’t believe their mistakes are quite as noticeable.

In the case of Los Angeles restaurants, the health ratings are pretty hard to miss on Yelp. The scores appear in the box on the right-hand side of the page that includes the restaurant’s hours and price range. Clicking on the score reveals any violations that influenced the score, along with ways to contact the city’s health department. The idea is that people who want to choose a new restaurant can learn about any health concerns ahead of time, before they’re already walking in the door.

The larger takeaway is that there’s incredible potential for greater public accountability, both from government officials and city residents. Luca hypothesizes that the same sort of system could be used to monitor dentists’ quality and regulatory compliance, and alerting customers to hotels that are known for having bedbugs and other health concerns. In these ways, the government and customer feedback sites have the potential to merge in several ways. To some, it might seem like the government is sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, into civilian forums and sites that businesses use to promote themselves. On the other hand, it’s creating more opportunities for customers to make informed decisions about where to spend their dollars and which options are best to keep at arm’s length.

Follow Nikelle on Twitter @Nikelle_CS

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