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Social Listening in Public Consultations – How useful is it?

Imagine being in charge of analysing the data from a major public library consultation. Option 1 received 310 likes, 178 frowny faces, 96 wows. Option 2 received 459 likes, 312 frowny faces, 89 wows etc. You might think this sounds silly but we’re actually not that far away from the reality of it. Digital by default has become the norm, especially in central government, so why not give people the option of using emoji’s or likes? Using social media in a public consultation has become mainstream for many organisations but the problem for most of them is what to do with this data.  The difficulty with social media is that you can’t manage it, you can only monitor it; this is especially true in the age we’re living in now, with dozens of SM platforms where people from all over the world can get involved in your consultation. The web is full of information that rapidly changes and it is sometimes difficult to identify what is relevant and what is not. But don’t worry, there is a way to tackle that problem.

Social Listening is the process osocial-media-3f monitoring digital conversations to understand what customers are saying about a brand or industry online. It sounds scarier than it actually is. tCI has been involved in a European project, funded by the European Commission, to find out what people in Europe are saying about the Erasmus Programme (European student exchange programme). The way we do it is by using software that has the ability to search all over the internet using the filters we’ve instructed it to such as; country, gender, age, sentiment, language etc. We used it to find out what people’s thoughts are on studying abroad, working abroad and all other Erasmus related queries. You could easily apply it to finding out what people in your area are thinking about your library consultation, your options or your public meeting. Another advantage of Social Listening is that it is much easier to identify your key (digital) stakeholders.

All of these digital conversations can be harnessed for a number of purposes such as:

  • Informing policy, decision making processes or consultations
  • Identifying digital audiences, spaces and influencers
  • Improving the quality of information, redressing the balance of misinformation
  • Tracking trends and anticipating issues
  • Being more responsive to citizen needs
  • Improving take-up of formal participation opportunities
  • Addressing the deficit of active listening on the digital channel
  • Extending a network of contacts for later consultation

Having access to an overwhelming amount of data always arouses suspicion. It is, therefore, extremely important that you handle this data correctly. A clear and transparent methodology is vital and this can be achieved by making the process clear and sharing the outcomes. Other things to consider are:

  • No deception (research in the guise of marketing)
  • No use of “walled garden” content (where the researcher must join or register a network)
  • Take precautions against accidental exposure
  • Be extra careful with sensitive information
  • Do not use quotations or material that could be traced back to individuals. This may mean broadcasting a post without attribution, or with a blurring of the name and preserving original context so as not to surprise the originator
  • Inform participants when an ‘owned’ digital channel is being mined

One thing to bear in mind is that the demographic of people who post online is not wholly representative of the population at large. There are still many people who prefer to go to a public meeting than to Tweet about it.

Social Listening has a huge potential for the public sector and it’s surprising to see that it hasn’t generated more interest in recent years but as people are spending more time online, it can give you, as consultor, a more informed view on your consultation.

About the Author

Remmert worked as the Institute’s Policy & Communications Manager and has a BA in Law and an MA in European Policy from the University of Amsterdam. He is well versed in open policy-making and distilling evidence based recommendations into policy actions. Remmert is an expert on the United Nation’s Aarhus Convention for which he has developed a unique risk-assessment tool and is currently involved in a European Union funded project to explore how e-participation can foster young people’s empowerment and active participation in democratic life.

Read more about Remmert

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