Social media isn’t just a convenient way to pass on news to citizens. It opens up a conversation that informs policy – and alerts governments to emerging risks. But how do you cut through all the ‘noise’ to find out what people are really thinking?
In a world where communications have become very fragmented, social media lets policymakers talk with citizens, business and interest groups on a one-to-one basis.
Rather than spending money on ad campaigns or leaflets, governments can send out instant messages via Facebook, Twitter and other channels. This may include serious news about public health notices, flooding and fires, or details on everyday life like traffic disruption, school and holiday closures or voter registration.
Social media is also a great way to explain new policies, whether it’s building a highway, changing health and social care services, or reforming tax laws.
At an international level, governments can tell would-be refugees and immigrants what to expect when they enter the country. And foreign ambassadors may use ‘digital diplomacy’ to explain their country’s position on sensitive issues.
Any new government policy or project is likely to come under intense scrutiny. If you want to keep on top of what community organisations, citizens and other key stakeholders are talking about, social media is increasingly the place to go. You’re likely to gain the kinds of insights that help you make better, more informed policy decisions.
Social media research is an effective and inexpensive way to gauge the mood of interested parties. The earlier you get feedback, the sooner you can target stakeholders with messages that lay out the rationale and the benefits. By continuously monitoring opinion throughout a program, governments can size the level of support, and, if necessary, refine policy.
In Australia, for instance, a transport program to build a new rail link in Sydney, has had surprisingly few complaints, despite causing commuters a lot of grief. That’s because there’s been a dialogue from the start. Everyone knows why the line is needed, and most are optimistic about the wider advantages it will bring.
The government body responsible for the works has a vibrant and active presence on social media, in particular Twitter and a professional Facebook Page. The Twitter account alerts thousands of people on recent works, delays, various updates and other critical information. This information is then shared across various networks and groups who have to come into contact with the project whether they are workers in the central business district or people coming to the city for the day.
Some specific uses of the Twitter account include:
All these communications efforts would have historically taken significant investment in advertising and not have allowed for changes to be made in near real-time. Social media has given governments the ability to very quickly and cost effectively disseminate information.
For activists, social media has become one of the primary vehicles for communicating with each other, raising money, and getting their message out. It can propel special interest stories that can be used to hold governments, organisations and individuals accountable. At the same time journalists – who are expected to feed 24/7 news with ever fewer resources – frequently turn to social media to source their stories. A small localised news story could easily be picked up by a national media organisation making headlines.
Small conversations bubble away on social media, so governments have to be on top of this ‘chatter’ to help avoid surprises. By assessing the noise level across social media, governments can predict whether they’re delivering the right policies via the right messages, or alternatively, whether there’s serious opposition that could threaten progress.
It’s easy to get excited by technology available for monitoring social media activity. But it’s actually harder than you think to turn large amounts of unstructured data into meaningful insights. And you don’t have much time either, as stories can evolve in minutes and hours.
One common error is to take too much notice of noise that’s emanating from a relatively small and uninfluential group, and which doesn’t represent wider public views. You need to understand how different groups are using social media, how many followers they have, what kinds of things they’re saying, and who they’re influencing.
It takes real expertise to analyse data. The best practitioners understand the subtle balance between quantitative and qualitative information, and can swiftly come up with a clear and accurate picture of what’s going on.
Intelligent use of social media can help governments push through programs, avoid harmful incidents and improve services. It should lead to more efficient use of resources, with less waste – something that resonates well with the public and media in a time of austerity.
But all the data in the world won’t help if you don’t have the analytical skills to offer real-time understanding of the opinions out there. Technology may bring unparallelled access to vast amounts of social media data, but it’s people that will help you use this information to deliver better government.
Greg Daniel is National Practice Leader and Head of Social Media Risk for KPMG in Australia. James Griffin is a Director in the KPMG Australia, Digital Consulting Practice. He Tweets from @James_HGriffin.