Thinking Fast and Slow on Social Media


Representation and engagement is at the heart of much of the activity and establishment of a local authority. Technology has a significant role to play to contribute to this. This blog is intended to be used as a way to develop some thoughts around these topics, amongst others. Social media is currently touching on most debates, so that seems a good place to start. I spend too much of my day on Twitter, and do most of my research via blogs and social media. However, I have a confession to make; I am yet to convince myself about the contribution of social media for local government.

The discussions around social media and new tech seem to be swamped by sweeping statements. We may have heard passing statements such as 'everyone's got a smartphone', 'all young people are using Twitter', 'nobody writes letters anymore' to argue in support of jumping headfirst into digital channels. This is exaggerated by the fact that myself and others do most of our reading via postings on social media. Unsurprisingly, most of the people I follow on Twitter are convinced by its value. This feels to me somewhat like walking into a church, asking if God exists and then concluding that God exists. I am not saying that I disagree with them (either group…), but what I am saying is that we must be convinced for three reasons:

  • The group of people who understand the benefit of social media talk to each other. The others sit outside of this discussion, yet is the people outside who will make the difference for success
  • Councils are responsible for a substantial amount of public money, and need to be run with business in mind. Lots of work has been put into channel shift and managing demand. To be convinced about implementing social media, local authorities cannot rely on anecdotal success stories  but instead must be persuaded by a thorough analysis of the costs and the benefits
  • There have been many success stories. There have also been many failures. Our problem is the success stories are still going and are a part of the conversation. How do local authorities hear from the failures, discover the reasons, and predict its chances of success?

I am (slowly) making my way through Daniel Kahneman's bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Some of Kahneman's summaries on cognitive biases may be useful to consider when planning how to use social media. His book offers a plethora of useful observations, so a glance at the chapter 'The Outside View' will scratch its surface to offer a relevant viewpoint from which to examine social media.

How do we want to use social media?

The Inside View

Kahneman tells the story of grossly underestimating the duration of a project because of planning from the perspective of the inside view. Planning decisions are based on specific circumstances and evidence is gathered from inside people's own experiences. In order to gain a more accurate forecast of how successful a project will be the outside view must be considered. The outside view considers how successful other similar projects have been, from which a baseline prediction can be used as an anchor for future predictions.

The Confirmation Bias

The confirmation bias is a tendency for people to favour the information to confirm the beliefs that they already hold. This is apparent both in the information that people collect, and the way that they interpret that information. This is significant for social media policies, as the most readily available information is accessible from social media, which by its nature tends to be biased in favour of itself.

How do we plan to use social media?

The Planning Fallacy

As a consequence of taking the inside view, people often are subject to the planning fallacy. Kahneman explains that plans and forecasts are typically unrealistically close to best-case scenarios, and only by consulting the statistics of similar cases can this be reconsidered. This is exaggerated in the case of social media, because best-case scenarios are more readily available for using as a base of evidence, as by the very nature of their success they are easily found (the availability bias). In addition, unrealistic plans are often written by people who want to get their plans achieved, and as a consequence are overly-optimistic.

Irrational Perseverance

Irrational perseverance is evident in projects that continue despite not being successful or going to plan. In many instances, not abandoning a project is the same in itself. Kahneman observes that it is often more common to give up on rationality rather than give up on the enterprise. How often is faltering social media continued because of a personal desire rather than a recorded benefit to the organisation?

So that's some of the theory, what can we action when planning an approach to use social media?

  • Gather evidence from local authority social media accounts to be a reference class, and include the failures. Use this to create a baseline prediction in order to inform planning
  • Optimism encourages persistence against potential obstacles. Optimistic planning that is aware of the rate of failure should allow for future social media failures to be an acceptable risk
  • Ask more neutral questions in order to compensate for the confirmation bias from both sides of the discussion; as opposed to 'how can we use social media to communicate and collaborate?' ask 'how can we communicate and collaborate in an engaging and personal way?'
  • Establish performance measures and standards for social media to help guard against irrational perseverance
  • We are better storytellers than we are logicians  - ensure that planning is based on cost-benefit analysis in addition to good stories
  • Recognise and reward planners who anticipate difficulties when trying to get their plans approved
  • Get plans approved by people on all sides of the discussion who are willing to challenge accepted wisdom


This just scratches the surface of using social media, and Kahneman's brilliant book. Time to spend less time on Twitter and more time finishing the book…..

Security level: Public


Leanne Hughes 7 Years Ago
Hi Rob Thank you for posting the above. Social media in local government is very interesting and you are right - a lot of the time it is used as a throwaway omnipotent solution that has no factual backing. Coventry City Council has a very active Twitter account and our followers have recently grown to 10,000 (when I started at the Council in October we had approximately 7,000). The times when we appeared to get the most response (and accrue the most followers) were when we were tweeting about school closures due to the snow. My first placement has been in the contact centre and we think we avoided a number of calls over this period because of Twitter. Although the impact is not easily quantified, it is proven that telephone contact is much more expensive than the costs to run online services. I think social media cannot be the single solution for all of local government's financial and communication issues, however it is one of a number of solutions. It is just necessary to assess which solution is most suited to each issue and use accordingly. Tweeting about school closures is a good tactic as the problem is wide-reaching and instantaneous. However tweeting people to remind them of appointment times (or something else that is narrow in its impact) would not prove beneficial for the Council. In this case, an automated SMS system would work as it is more direct and it can be integrated with the CRM system. It would be interesting to hear about other Councils' approach to social media... is it something that your authority is making use of or is it something that is being approached sceptically? Leanne
Rob Newton 7 Years Ago
Thanks for the comment Leanne. Coventry must be an exciting place to be an NMT and your use of social media is something that we'd like to copy in many ways I should think. We've probably got a mixture of approaches in the Council. Using social media more is definitely on the agenda, some people are sceptical, some all for it and others trying to work it out. I suppose some of my thoughts are about how to navigate through the different approaches within a local authority, whilst still promoting social media as a tool we should use. A local authority is a big and complex place with people interacting with it for many different purposes. Hopefully our approach to social media responds to that.
Michael MacAuley 7 Years Ago
A great piece Rob. Entertaining and insightful. Love the God analogy. Made me laugh out loud. The trick which very few have managed so far is tying social endeavour directly to business outcomes. While I laud the sentiment that evangelistic, self-congratulatory projects be brought down to earth and tied to value, I also know that real innovation and advances in enterprise delivery are rarely brought about in a risk free environment and often require the efforts of a few who may not know exactly what they are doing in this regard but none the less are valuable contributors and early explorers of a space which eventually becomes vital. I'm old enough to remember friends openly laughing at the idea that people would one day buy things from the internet and have them delivered without actually seeing them first. I have had managers guffaw at the idea that moving enterprise ICT to a cloud environment as techy fantasy. In short it's about timing. At what point in the adoption process should be take a long hard look at what value is being delivered, how concrete it is and what additional potential value there is in continuing. It is not always possible to predict future value based on current models. I'm off to read that book now. I got a copy for Christmas and you've bumped it up to the top of my list now. How very social. Thanks Mike
Alex Marshall 7 Years Ago
Great blog and reply, let us know how the book goes. There are some case studies on the LGA website which were undertaken by Local Authorites which might be of interest. They are either looking at Customer insight or Social media and they describe the journey the LAs have been on in these projects and the out comes.
Rob Newton 7 Years Ago
Thanks for these Alex, they'll be really useful and I'll get reading. Interesting points to add into the mix Michael. To me there are two responses to the Planning Fallacy, either "7 out of 8 fail at doing this new thing, let's not do it", or "7 out of 8 fail at doing this new thing, let's try it with the knowledge that it's ok to fail". I suppose we need a healthy mix of both to get useful innovation. The 'fail fast' mantra (a la Michael Jordan ) can contribute lots to our projects, and probably relevant for social media as the risks are relatively small. Happy reading, it's a great book!
Michael MacAuley 7 Years Ago
Fail efficiently