Friday, 24 October 2014

Tweeting in government follows the flow of money and power - Dr Panos Panagiotopoulos, Lecturer in Management at Queen Mary

Public authorities mainly use social media to communicate with citizens. But they can also use networks like Twitter and LinkedIn to link people with expertise within the public sector. Unfortunately we still know little about how public officials use social media in this context. This article reports new research findings about these networks, from a study of tweets from the Twitter hashtag #localgov. We find that the pattern and direction of Twitter communication in government itself facilitates internal networking while reflecting the structure of power in the British state.

Every two years, Oxford’s Internet Institute runs the Internet, Politics, and Policy (IPP) conference. This year, the conference looked at crowdsourcing. The purpose was to inform policy debates as well as to advance social science research. New work was presented on crowdfunding, crowdlabour (see the Amazon Mechanical Turk) and government crowdsourcing. Research in the area is now less impressed by the size and power of the crowds and more interested in the composition of the crowds and in people’s motivation to join them. For example, the Zoouniverse platform is an impressive collection of citizen science websites. Visitors to the site can help research by classify galaxies according to their shape, because people are often better at pattern recognition than algorithms are. Nevertheless, it is hard to sustain crowdsourcing initiatives. You can find more detailed reflections from the conference and a full list of papers here.

But what about crowd conversations over social media within the public sector? Most previous studies look only at citizen-government relationships or government communication with the public generally. We need to learn much more about how social media can enable sharing of expertise across government professionals.
With my Queen Mary Centre for Government and Leadership colleagues Dennis De Widt and Martin Laffin, I examined the role of the “crowds” in internal networks in government enabled by social media (the paper can be found here).
With the help of Chorus Analytics, we collected 146,981 tweets from the hashtag #localgov. That hashtag is mainly used by British local government professionals. It enables them to connect to each other on an ad hoc basis and share information quickly. Many communities of practice work like this, whether they use social media, merely email or just face-to-face communication. What social media add is the ability for professionals to provide each other with links to resources. On the other hand, the 140 characters restriction means they can’t conduct debates in any depth.
We collected tweets from June 2013 to June 2014. That was a very important year for local government in England because there were three budgets events with major consequences for local government finances. The Spending Review was announced in June 2013. In December 2013, the Chancellor made his Autumn Statement. Finally, in March 2014, the full budget was announced. English local authorities are heavily dependent upon central government funding. On average, central grants support 70% of their spending. This fact has always been a source of tensions. Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, local government in England has been through unprecedented cuts of 27% in their expenditure. With the economic recovery being slower than expected, the Spending Review in the summer of 2013 included further cuts and council tax freezes.
The 146,981 tweets were posted by 26,909 different accounts. 77,869 of them were original tweets rather than retweets. Between 400 and 550 contributions were made each weekday to #localgov with far fewer posts during weekends. Between 60% and 70% of the tweets provided links to commentaries, news websites, blogs or other sources. Many carried an accompanying message, which might simply be informative. Some passed ironic, critical or political comments too. Sentiment analysis showed that the average sentiment of tweets was quite neutral, which reflects their professional networking nature.
As we expected, the three budgetary events were marked by peaks in tweeting. On the day that the Spending Review was announced (26/6/2013), 1,178 tweets were posted. This is a higher number of tweets than the joint local government and European elections on 22/5/2014 (986 tweets). The Autumn Statement (5/12/2013) attracted 822 tweets. The Budget day itself (19/3/2014) however attracted slightly fewer tweets (760) tweets.
Many of local government policymakers and staff tweeted reactions and commentaries about the cuts announced in the Spending Review. Popular tweets came from existing communication hubs like the Local Government Association and the Guardian Local Government Network. Council officers and councillors from all over the country voiced their concerns about the impact of the cuts (e.g. “#Yorkshire councils expecting to lose further 300m. That’s enough to support 1200 libraries or 9000 social workers”). Tweets posted on the day of the Autumn Statement or the Budget announcement contained more balanced reactions and focused on issues like council housing and public sector salaries.
Next, we wanted to know how conversations about local government finance evolved over the year and to learn more about the types of social interactions formed. For this purpose, we analysed the frequency with which key words were used. About half of all the tweets were about budget reductions, finances and/or service reforms. These themes dominated the whole year and not just the peaks in tweeting around events like the Spending Review announcement. As we expected, existing hubs in local government networks and important policy actors got most mentions and retweets. However, taken as a whole, the network of mentions is not highly clustered and generally not centralised around influential accounts. But there is an important exception to this. Central government departments, political actors and party accounts are mentioned intensively by many other tweeters but they do not usually engage in discussions with them. The graph below shows a clustered network of 167 accounts mentioned at least 10 times excluding retweets.

This network analysis suggests that there is plenty of communication and exchange of ideas both between local government actors, across services, but much less across the tiers of government. It reflects the local government’s need constantly to understand what the centre is doing to its budgets, to understand what cuts are required, and to use this information to work out tactics. By contrast, Twitter contact between central and local government is typically one-way. That reflects central government’s continuing authority and local government’s dependence.

In short, tweets follow the money and Twitter conversations follow the direction of power. Central government uses Twitter to tell local government what it expects. Local government then uses Twitter to work out what central government really means and what to do about it.

Unsurprising? Well, perhaps. But it does help to put in context the government’s rhetoric about localism and returning power to communities. While central government controls most of the revenue for local authorities, it also shapes what councillors and officers talk about, and makes sure that they talk mainly to each other about what the centre gives and wants.

A copy of the paper can be found here. Presentation slides are available here.

Panos Panagiotopoulos is Lecturer in Management at Queen Mary University of London with interests in information technology and social media research. He tweets from @DrPanPan.

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