Les politiques urbaines et Twitter

This is a blog to accompany a lecture I gave to the Altervilles Masters Programme in September 2014. In my talk I laid out the following argument: the Urban policy actors are engaging in practices of hashtag politics. That is, they are coining memorable and uniquely named policies, and these names give such policy a life and ultimately a death. I argue that social media is aiding the process but playing a role in their demise. As a public policy academic I think we are well placed to explain these transitions but we must continue to adapt our repertoire of analytical tools to include new forms of data.


My interest in this comes from ten years of encountering policy ideas – something I first saw when exploring Birmingham’s renaissance, how those I interviewed talked without hesitation of how Birmingham during the 1990s had returned to its former glory. I argued at the time that such a discourse had to be continually reiterated to maintain its efficacy. In the early 2000s one such mechanism was a policy idea called “Flourishing Neighbourhoods” – here I encountered tens of different ways of expressing the idea, with associations made with everything from civic pride to feeling safe, involvement and sustainable communities. Such ideas often have vague beginnings and few can remember from where they came. Many will claim it was their idea – name times and places where it was first adopted, stolen, adapted, coopered, corrupted.  Few however can remember when it was forgotten. Such is the way with policy ideas – policy actors prefer to discuss the latest and loudest.


In my first project as a post-doc I visited Rotterdam and Copenhagen, there too policy actors framed their work in terms of policy ideas, such as city citizenship and integrated Copenhagen. I am sure if I returned there some 7 years on, many of the practices would be familiar but the branded policy ideas different. Every project I have been involved in has followed similar patterns – Transforming Birmingham, Total place, the big society. They operate at different scales and degrees of scope but they share common properties – they are branded ideas and visions with instrumental intent and container-like elasticity.


Around the time of studying the big society – 2010 or thereabouts – something else was happening. Watch the tour de France and you will see it on the roadside – compare audiences of the Pope in 2005 and 2013 and you will see something different. Every month websites will inform you that 1.19billion people are active on Facebook, 1.3 billion on YouTube and Google-plus, 232 million on Twitter, with growing numbers on the likes of Instagram, Pintrest and Tumblr. As smart phone ownership grows so do these numbers. Particular social networks will come and go, but mobile internet is here to stay.


Not every country is the same – in the UK Twitter is extremely popular in policy circles; in France, for now, less so, but it is growing. Facebook is extremely strong in France and DJs and footballers have followerships of over 15 million. French President Francois Holland has almost 700k followers and has tweeted over 4000 times – a similar number to David Cameron, although his office has 2.8 million. It is where news is announced – and it is where people react. Some call this the biggest focus group in the world, with people retweeting messages and replying to authors or mentioning users.


Cities too are now on Twitter: although mainly remaining in the communications department, cities are working out how to communicate messages and interact with residents. Who has control of the account remains a massive learning curve, just as airlines, train companies and brands have found when trying to promote their brands and defend their reputations. Government departments launch hashtag campaigns – like the Home Office in the UK promoting the police commissioner elections with #MyPCC and photos to make it seem personal. As the NYPD found, these campaigns can easily backfire, with users hijacking the #MyNYPD hashtag to reveal photos of police brutality. Similarly the highly effective #BringBackOurGirls spearheaded by the likes of Michelle Obama clearly put pressure on governments to respond to the plight of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls – and yet opened up those who got involved to harsh scrutiny of the Twitterarti. 


So thinking about the big society back in 2010 led me down the route of asking two questions: What does all this mean for policy practice, and what does this mean for policy research?


Starting with practice, it leads to questions like how is Twitter changing how policy is made, or named, or implemented; how is it helping or hindering those who promote policy? When you delve into the literature it is somewhat fragmented. The biggest chunk is unsurprisingly focused on the profit motive – how can brands launch successful campaigns, how much does dialogue matter, how much does sentiment matter, can we predict sales or market performance or measure return on investment, and understand the needs of our customers?  These questions have a policy relevance because businesses are the early adopters of Twitter – they have realised that two-way communication is advantageous yet difficult, but possible. They have realised that automated sentiment meters are unreliable, that there are many kinds of twitter user, that the mass media continue to exercise a hold on whether brands sink or swim. Furthermore they have sophisticated metrics that can understand which Tweets get more shares and our motivations to do so. But the literature is not all about profits and bottom lines.  Much is made of the democratic potential of Twitter – the ability to mobilise and organise mass movements for or against a cause. Here they are interested in the contagion, the virility of a tweet and how these can redress democratic inequality.  These literatures give many examples of countries where revolutions were fuelled by Twitter, where governments tried to switch it off or mount astroturf movements. It is changing so many ways in which professions operate – journalists sourcing stories, broadcasters creating viewertariats, emergency planners maintaining lines of communication, intelligence agencies listening in, health officials dissuading smoking, charities promoting donations. Political actors are also discussed in this literature – cultivating their micro-celebrity, self promoting, interacting, hoping to improve election outcomes, while others use Twitter data to predict the outcome, or exercise a Trial by Twitter, pointing out scandals and malpractice.


But Twitter has implications beyond just the practice of psephologists: it has wider implications for policy research. It begs questions like – what are these data – what is the role they play in the rise and demise of contemporary policy ideas – the modern day flourishing neighbourhoods, Total Place or indeed the Big Society (an idea we do not mention any more)? What can we do beyond our existing methods of counting newspaper articles and such?  One of the main implications is a clamour for bigger and bigger datasets.  This is comfort-data. Researchers have a classic fear of missing out – so try to collect everything, try to capture the full transaction of searchable talk. All of this brings with it issues of ethics and challenges of data management. Some choose to subscribe to companies that index social data, others essentially record it from Twitter through the APIs, and increasing numbers are buying packages of historic tweets from resellers.


Beyond the challenges there are some obvious exciting potentials – alternatives to costly case studies, alternatives to interview and document analysis, an opportunity to get to where debate is taking place, and permit the introduction of innovative methods and automated qualitative processes.


In the talk I set out a range of techniques that might be used, ranging from the most hands off to the most hands on. At the most macro levels, it is possible to count frequencies with relative ease – to track the fluctuation of mentions of a given policy and draw conclusions as to its vitality. We can drill down and explore the influencers, including a new generation of Twitter celebrities and mega-users who have tweeted over 120,000 times. We can apply algorithms to divide messages or parse parts of messages into positive and negative sentiment without the need for human input. If you are dissatisfied or worried about the reliability of such automation then you can capture the tweets and sift through them manually. If desired you can work in small teams coding and classifying items in order to isolate just those tweets expressing an opinion on the policy idea in question and then explore how the debate is changing shape over time. At perhaps the most hands on is to take samples of tweets and feed them back into Twitter itself, asking users to rank order tweets into order of preference and then subjecting these rankings to factor analysis. This Q-methodology reveals shared viewpoints that structure the data and in turn can inform further research – be it qualitative or quantitative by design.


What I conclude is that Twitter data offers a wealth of research possibilities. Whilst user numbers continue to grow and how it is used continues to evolve, so must policy research to keep up. It might be early days for some countries, but all signs suggest more and more policy actors across the world are taking to Twitter to launch and foster policy ideas. I am confident we are now well placed to be able to explain what is happening using a variety of hands on and automated tools. Returning to where we began – although social media has a relatively recent history, the techniques of policy making using memorable branded policy ideas has a much longer past; what is different are the tools that make and break them.

This talk draws on my most recent book: Interpreting Hashtag Politics: Policy Ideas in an Era of Social Media, published by Palgrave and available in a range of formats on Amazon.


Policy Ideas in a Digital Age – new conference paper


Next week I am off to Grenoble to present a new paper at  Session 3 New Ideational Turns, as part of panel 84 New directions in the study of public policy, convened by Peter John, Hellmut Wollmann and Daniel A. Mazmanian, the 1st International Conference on Public Policy, Grenoble, France, June 26-28. Friday 28 June, 8.30-10.30, Sciences Library Auditorium.

Policy Ideas Paper

It is a draft paper – I welcome your comments or suggestions


This paper argues that the discussion of public policy online is offering new and exciting opportunities for public policy research exploring the role of policy ideas.  Although considerable work focuses on political ideas at the macro or mid-range, specific policy ideas and initiatives  are overlooked, thought to be “too narrow to be interesting” (Berman, 2009, p. 21) .This paper argues that the prolific use of social media among policy communities means it is now possible to systematically study the micro-dynamics of how policy ideas are coined and fostered.  Policy ideas are purposive, branded initiatives that are launched with gusto; flourish for around a thousand days; and then disappear with little trace as attention shifts to the latest and loudest.  At best, media reports will document that Birmingham’s Flourishing Neighbourhoods initiative has been “scrapped”, “Labour’s Total Place programme has been “torn up”, or the Coalition’s big society policy is “dead”.  Save for a return to the policy termination literatures of the late 1980s, our impotence in conceptualising such death-notices reveals how little effort has been invested in understanding and theorising the lifecycle of policy ideas.  In response, this paper conceptualises policy ideas, their life, death and succession.  The paper draws on a case of the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections held across England and Wales in November 2012, and the attempts of the Home Office to coin and foster the hashtag #MyPcc.

 Acknowledgement: The primary research reported was funded by British Academy Grant – SG112101 The shape of ideas to come: harvesting and analysing online discussion about public policy.  And University of Birmingham Roberts Fellowship 2008-2013.  Heartfelt thanks to the research team: Gill Plumridge, Becky O’Neil, Tom Daniels, Pete Redford, Phoebe Mau, Diha Mulla, Misfa Begum, Sarah Jeffries and Osama Filali Naji for your empathetic coding, unwavering enthusiasm and crowd-like wisdom.


Policy Ideas in a Digital Age by Stephen Jeffares

On why we need to do Q faster

I remember a bit of a row on the Q method.org listserve a while back. There was a discussion about Q Assessor as a tool that allowed both the initiated and the unwashed to do Q studies faster. It clearly riled some members, arguing that
Q was not something to be rushed. And in part I agree. But in the last year I have been starting to look at Twitter data as a source of statements for my concourse and it revealed to me reasons why we need to do Q faster. Let me explain.

Although I have used Q in a number of ways in the past, my main reason for using Q is to understand the subjectivity that surrounds policy ideas. Anybody remember that slogan ‘war on terror’, or the reframing of global warming and associated concerns as ‘climate change’? In the UK an example would be something like the "big society" that seems to have had a three year life expectancy despite it being trailed as the Prime Minister’s ‘big idea for politics’. The current media consensus is that the idea is now dead and defunct. My hunch about all of this is that the formative stages of a policy idea’s life in the spotlight matter. Usually once the launch is over, the report published and the press release issued the policy communities take to Twitter to express their view. They express their views often with humour, irony and the popular ones are cascaded through networks of followerships propelling the message in what, some call, going viral. Policy ideas live and die by the web.

Q methodologists go to great lengths to draw on multiple sources of concourse: newspaper archives, documents, observations, interviews and literature reviews. They bring them together, sample them down and then administer the Q sorts. Fine and long may this continue. But whilst I was collecting Twitter data surrounding a recent policy idea, to have elected police commissioners in England and Wales, I noticed something interesting. If you took the tweets running up to the election as a whole, 50,000 over a couple of weeks, you can see what were the most commonly occurring words and terms. They give you a sense of the common descriptors for how the policy was viewed. Focus on the data a day at a time and we, as Steve Brown himself would say, finds us turning up the microscope. The language varies day to day, certain new phrases come in and stick.

Let me give you a few examples – "spoil" emerged as a frequently mentioned term as the campaign mobilised to encourage people to "spoil" their ballots. "shambles" came in to describe how the election was being administered. #MyPCC the hashtag of the Home Office campaign responsible almost disappeared. What I am trying to say is a simple point – that concourse, the volume of debate surrounding a topic, is not static. Perhaps we could grandly call these daily concourses, or micro-concourses, I don’t mind, but you get my point.

If we are to understand the formation of concourse around emergent ideas, policies whatever, then we need the capability of capturing voluminous discussion. We need tools that can take datasets of 20, 30,100 thousand Tweets or Facebook posts and pull out potential statements. So maybe we do need to do Q faster. I’ll think on.

Congratulations Dr Overland


In the picture is Dr Klara Overland, from the University of Stavanger in Norway.  Also in the picture is a Q methodology cake made by her husband.

I had the pleasure of being an Opponent on her awarding committee.  In the British system we tend to produce a ‘big book’ thesis of 80,000 words that is examined by  external and internal examiners, with the  discussion takingplace behind closed doors.

So how do they do it in Norway?  Let me tell you.

In the Norwegian system the thesis is awarded by publication, consisting of a bound thesis of four published journal articles and a 100 page summary. The thesis is sent to two external examiners for review.  Once revisions have been completed the thesis is deemed ‘worthy of defense’.  The Candidate is then given 2 weeks to prepare a public lecture on a topic of the committee’s choosing.  On the day of the defense the lecture is delivered in the morning and the thesis is publically defended in the afternoon.   Each opponent conducts an hour of public cross-examination in front of an audience of colleagues, friends and family.  The Candidate then hosts a celebratory banquet in the evening.

I am pleased to report Klara successfully defended her research using Q methodology to understand how professionals frame problems and solutions in their everyday practice.

While I was there it was also possible to take a boat down the world famous Lysefjord, learn about the Norwegian oil economy at a specialist museum.  For anybody travelling to Stavanger anytime soon my top tip is  the less well known Norweigen canning museum dedicated to to Stavanger’s historic tinned sardine economy.  Thoughly charming and great on toast.

On how a picture is worth a thousand words…

There’s a slide I use when I am teaching Q methodology. It is a picture of village life – and the different ways people view living in their rural environment.  The picture is always popular.  It is a neat way of presenting Q factors that doesn’t rely on tables of data or technical terms.  Sometimes I try to claim it was my idea, or even my picture.  For the record. It wasn’t

The artist of this fine picture is the fabulous Ellie Kivinen who works for the London based research consultancy  Brook Lyndhurst

Here’s the picture.

Ellie Picture


The picture can be found on page 36 of this DEFRA fund report written by David Fell, Annie Austin and Ellie Kivinen.


oh and here’s the reference for your bibliographies:

BrookLyndhurst (2010) Social Capital and Quality of Life in Rural Areas A Report prepared for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs by Brook Lyndhurst Ltd, May (London: DEFRA)

Jolly good.