The Commons public administration select committee’s call for open policymaking, published on 3 June, envisages civil servants as the guardians of wiki-style policymaking, with public sector leaders embracing digital technologies and using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.
But these social media platforms can be a double-edged sword for policymakers.
Never has it been easier, or cheaper, to launch or consult on new policy initiatives. The possibility of creating a hashtag and reaching both the influencers and the wider public is seductive. Yet it can also result in something close to a Dr Frankenstein scenario: you have created a hashtag, and it will destroy you!
Once unleashed, public, tag-able, searchable and unique policy ideas are vulnerable to all kinds of comment, including critique and derision. Keeping abreast of what is being said about your initiative, activity or organisation can be difficult when you are busy with everyday matters, as former BBC director general George Entwistle found to his cost.
The rise of social media has brought with it a goldrush, with numerous companies and social media consultants offering “social listening” technologies, related advice and services. These tools can be configured to alert organisations of both positive and negative discussion of their initiatives, opening up opportunities to capitalise or take action. Metrics are provided to show the most influential users discussing an initiative, and who should be approached to help spread the message.
New tags are created daily – #compassionatecare, #MyPCC, #Greendeal, and, a personal favourite, the probation-related tag #transformingrehabilitation, which takes up 20% of a tweet.
Succeeding at hashtag politics is challenging. Here are my top tips:
1. Acknowledge the craft
In the battle to disseminate a message in a competitive environment with multiple channels and information overload, the creation of effective labels – such as hashtags – for policy ideas is part of the craft of policymaking.
2. Expect and accept some loss of creative control
Since its inception, big society has been frequently criticised as nebulous and vague. However, vagueness is part of the appeal of a policy idea. Its very nebulousness is what draws people to it and allows them the important opportunity to attach their own meanings and demands. Organic labels, hashtags and alternative meanings will arise. Take, for example, the Home Office’s #MyPCC, which was usurped by #PCC.
Invest modest resources in social media monitoring software, but, more importantly, recruit and train policy researchers to integrate new forms of data into their work.
Hashtag policymaking is more about creating memorable policy ideas than explicit hashtags. Following one hashtag or set of users is not enough. You have to adapt to changing language to be able to capture the conversation.
5. Peek under the hood now and again
Do not rely solely on automated analytics, such as sentiment monitors, when making decisions.
6. Engage more and broadcast less
Be prepared to engage in informal discussion with citizens, without the need for approval from above. Waiting three days for sign off to reply to a Facebook comment is not engagement.
7. Be prepared to let go
Every day your initiative is online, accept that attachment to policy ideas is gradual, cumulative and eventually disruptive. Learn to recognise when the policy idea is entering its final stages, be prepared to disinvest, and do not mislead your collaborators.
This post was originally published by the Guardian Public Leaders’ Network.
Stephen Jeffares is a Roberts Fellow in the College of Social Sciences based in INLOGOV, Institute for Local Government Studies. His fellowship focuses on the role of ideas in the policy process and implications for methods. He is a specialist in Q methodology and other innovative methods to inform policy analysis.