Towards a public authority at eye level
LENE KROGH JEPPESEN, DIGITISATION LADY WHO BELIEVES IN SOCIAL MEDIA, SKAT – THE DANISH CUSTOMS AND TAX ADMINISTRATION
@skattefar is the human and helpful profile of SKAT on the social media platform Twitter. A team of forthcoming employees responds to questions and comments from the users, and this in turn helps SKAT to solve problems more efficiently, and to offer better and more targeted service to citizens. Lene, one of the team members behind @skattefar, provides insight into how public institutions can exchange knowledge and engage in new relations with their users by actively taking part in social Web culture.
@skattefar meets Emil
On 15 September 2012, @skattefar received a tweet from @emilstahl:
“Couldn’t you stop your entry form at the E-tax password login page from auto-completing the user’s social security number? Use autocomplete=”off”
@skattefar first assumed that the problem resided with local browser settings – and used screen dumps to guide Emil to rectify matters at his end. But @emilstahl did not let up:
“You really should fix this for security reasons. Otherwise anyone can simply enter the first digits of the social security number, and then all of it pops up ...”
Emil’s contribution prompts a dialogue with several other participants, and as a group they make it clear that an IT error made by SKAT has made it possible – in certain circumstances – to see other people’s social security number on a public computer. The employees behind @skattefar then act on the information received and correct the mistake, and @skattefar sends a goodiebag of SKAT merchandise to @emilstahl as a thank-you.
That September tweet became the starting point of a longer-term relation between 16-year-old Emil and @skattefar. When Emil’s teacher planned to teach them about taxes and society, @emilstahl tweeted @skattefar to get help finding the teaching materials created by SKAT. When Emil’s Facebook friends discussed whether they would need to pay import duties on goods sent from the UK, Emil had the right answer and got @skattefar to confirm it. Emil has found SKAT to be relatable, accessible and accommodating and turns to @skattefar whenever something pertaining to tax issues comes up in his life.
The challenge for SKAT: Making compulsory communication with authorities seem inviting
The last two decades of digitisation of the Danish tax system has caused the Danes to feel rather distanced and alienated from their own tax matters. The age when every citizen spent the spring months toiling with their pencils, paper, and calculator in order to calculate their taxes and fill in their tax returns is long gone. But it is still compulsory for every citizen to review their own taxes, and many look upon this as a very grown-up, boring chore. At the same time, many citizens perceive SKAT’s communication as bureaucratic, authoritarian, and difficult to understand. This means that SKAT faces the challenge of making compulsory communication accessible and relevant to citizens where they are. 
In addition to this, SKAT wishes to be an accessible authority; one that is ready to talk to citizens about their taxation issues and questions – and willing to learn about how citizens perceive our communication and digital solutions. Having this information helps SKAT become an efficient and up-to-date authority characterised by the highest possible level of user-friendliness in its digital solutions.
Twitter as a new platform for reaching citizens
In May 2010, SKAT entered the realm of Twitter with the profile @skattefar; this step was part of the ongoing evolution and development of the role of public authorities today. The objective was – and still is – to offer service and conversations based on our ambition of being a relatable authority.*1 What makes an authority relatable? A combination of several actions, all of which are supported by Twitter:
140 character-limit forces you to speak plainly
The 140 character limit forces @skattefar to get creative. Here, the SKAT authorities are compelled to state things briefly, plainly, and in everyday language that makes SKAT appear more down-to-earth in the users’ eyes. As Emil puts it: “On Twitter you say things in ways that are easy to understand.”*2 Emil says that this is particularly relevant where young people are concerned:
“If I call you on the phone I’ll get hold of some old fogey. There are plenty of grown-ups who have difficulties understanding SKAT, so how should I, at just sixteen, be able to get it if you use a lot of jargon?”
Placing the voice of the authority in the here and now
@skattefar answers quickly to all followers’ questions and also writes about topical issues directly to followers. Emil points to the news items and the rapid response times as examples of things that @skattefar does right on Twitter:
“The thing about not having to pay taxes out of your pocket money – that was on Twitter before it was in any other media. You are on Twitter every day; you write actual content for it [in contrast to many others who employ automated communication from Facebook and link to press releases via Twitter] and you answer almost immediately if we ask you about something.”
All this requires an ability to ‘plan and improvise’ whereas the classic disciplines of authorities everywhere focus on ‘planning and implementing’. The authority can certainly still plan its communication, but must also be aware of subjects that interest users – and use these to improvise relevant responses and dialogues with users.
An authority with a human face
A group of employees from SKAT take turns to provide @skattefar with a voice. Tweets are signed individually by the person acting as @skattefar, thereby adding to the sense of human contact. The profile as a whole is humanised by the deliberate decision to omit the heraldic crown device normally used by SKAT as a profile picture, opting for a group picture of the voices behind @skattefar instead. This decision helps demonstrate that what may seem to be a vast, anonymous authority is actually full of friendly and helpful people. 
Listening to the citizens
As was stated in the introduction, Emil and several other users called @skattefar’s attention to an IT error in September. Emil describes that experience as follows:
“At first I don’t think you quite understood what I was saying. But then some other guys explained it too, and then you got it. The fact that others agreed with me shows one of the advantages of Twitter. It is an open forum, and other people can see what’s going on. So you have to respond – because if you don’t, others will see that you don’t want to reply. And they’ll think ‘really, they ought to reply to that.’ I think that this openness is a good thing because then others can see that you answer me too, and I get my answer. It is good for everyone concerned.”
No-one is infallible. And that applies to authorities, too. Having the courage to listen to and enter into a dialogue with citizens that report errors or bad experiences will only strengthen a modern-day authority. The authority learns something and gets input that will prompt improvements. The citizens find that they are seen, heard, and understood, and this also means that they feel they receive better service.
Having the courage to ask
@skattefar asks our followers to test out new ideas and the ways we write. For example, @skattefar carries out “language checks” by posting screen dumps of existing texts. This exercise was part of the efforts made to improve the annual statements sent out in the spring of 2013. Emil points to this as an example of how to make good use of Twitter: “Your recent language checks, too. You use it to get help if you have a question.” Daring to ask the citizens about their opinions requires you to make a break with the role traditionally assumed by authorities; a role where the authority will, by definition, have all the right answers. Of course, not everything should be tested by the citizens. For example, Twitter is not the right forum for addressing questions about the overall redistribution of wealth in society, and @skattefar should not challenge the concept of paying taxes at all. SKAT is still the main expert responsible for legal matters, decisions, etc. @skattefar does not go into specific tax cases, nor should such matters be left up to the consensus of a wider circle of Twitter users.
Conclusion: A relatable authority builds and maintains relationships between authority and citizens
@skattefar helps give SKAT an accessible and open quality – it presents SKAT as a relatable authority that listens. It creates a new relationship between authority and citizens, where citizens, turn to the authority when it is relevant to them – and in the manner that best makes sense to them in their current situation. When asked whether he will turn to @skattefar again in the future, Emil replies: “Yes, if I have any questions; if anything comes up I’ll simply write.” Can you become a more open and inclusive authority simply by creating a profile on Twitter or some other social platform? No, but for SKAT creating such profiles has been part of the process. Establishing a dialogue with citizens also prompts new dialogue within the organisation itself and helps evolve the authority culture. Listening to the citizens’ side of things and hearing about their experiences develops a keener sense of how to be a modern authority – one that does not necessarily have all the answers.