Government awards contracts to monitor social media and give Whitehall 'real-time' updates on public opinion

Exclusive: They will monitor what people tweet, post and blog about the Government

Oliver Wright
Friday 05 June 2015 08:21 BST
An agreement has been reached for the first ever cross-Whitehall contract to monitor what people Tweet, post and blog about the Government
An agreement has been reached for the first ever cross-Whitehall contract to monitor what people Tweet, post and blog about the Government

Politicians like to claim that they don’t care what people say about them. We’ve always suspected that’s untrue – but now we know it is.

Ministers yesterday slipped out an announcement that, amid all the spending cuts, agreement has just been reached for the first ever cross-Whitehall contract to monitor what people Tweet, post and blog about the Government. Under the terms of the deal five companies have been approved to keep an eye on Facebook, Twitter and blogs and provide daily reports to Whitehall on what’s being said in “real time”.

Ministers, their advisers and officials will provide the firms with “keywords and topics” to monitor. They will also be able to opt in to an Orwellian-sounding Human-Driven Evaluation and Analysis system that will allow them to see “favourability of coverage” across old and new media.

The Government has always paid for a clippings service which collated press coverage of departments and campaigns across the national, regional and specialist media. They have also monitored digital news on an ad hoc basis for several years. But this is believed to be the first time that the Government has signed up to a cross-Whitehall contract that includes “social” as a specific media for monitoring.

The analysis will be able track hashtags being mentioned, such as the recent #milifandom

The Cabinet Office, which negotiated the deal, claim that even with the extended range of monitoring by bringing individual departmental contracts together they will be able to save £2.4m over four years whilst “maximising the quality of innovative work offered by suppliers”.

One of the successful bidders, Precise Media Monitoring, said it was able to provide ministers with an “automated sentiment” analysis.

“We use advanced text analytics to generate automated analysis for all mainstream and social content. This includes analysis of the key topics being discussed, and hashtags being mentioned and the sentiment of conversations. The results can quickly enable a Contracting Body [such as a Government department] to get an idea of sentiment towards a subject and can act as an alert to potential issues at an early stage.”

Under the new deal the contracting companies have also agreed to step up their work in times of “crisis”. Potentially it could allow Downing Street to monitor public dissatisfaction with ministers.

“The Supplier shall provide increased monitoring, coverage, resource and support to the Contracting Body in the event of heightened public interest or crisis situation,” the contract documents state.

“An example... is an unforeseen event which has a significant impact on the volume of media coverage that is relevant to the Contracting Body.”

The contracts also stipulate that successful contactors should also monitor a “range of daily news broadcasts, including radio, TV and web broadcasts”.

The providers will then provide email alerts between 5am and midnight within an hour of a “keyword being identified on broadcast”.

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the contract was about getting better value for money. “We monitor digital, social and traditional media so we understand what people are saying, identify their concerns and shape policies accordingly,” she said.

“Departments have always monitored social media but this agreement means they can find the most appropriate way of doing this at the best price, ensuring good value for money for the taxpayer.’

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