Update: 10:06 20 Feb 2020
A Freedom of Information request by Ephemeral Digest has revealed that social media mentions of the Bristol Mayor and Bristol City Council go directly to the Head of the Mayor’s Office and to the mayor’s policy advisers.
Bristol City Council have paid £90,000 to social media company Impact Social so as to keep track of online platforms. The contract began on 1 March 2018 and is due to expire in September 2020 unless it is renewed.
An example report from the 8th to the 10th of December clearly shows the users who have been Tweeting about any of the following search terms: “Marvin Rees” / “mayor of bristol” / @MarvinJRees / @BrisMayorOffice / “Bristol Council”.
Twitter users such as Liberal Democrat Party councillor Tim Kent (@cllrtimkent), @citizencaz, @keepbristoltidy, and @glutenfreescone were all listed.
The contract between the Council and the company states that it provides reports as “additional objective information and evidence base” so as “to inform corporate planning and organisational policy responses” and will be used “by the Policy Advisors and Head of Mayor’s Office”. “This is irrespective of who holds that office and information from the analysis will be available to anybody upon request.”
There are monthly reports “offering sentiment, topic, author, source of story, location and trend analysis” are not “for the purpose of collecting personal data and shall not serve any party political purpose.”
Up to six in-person presentations are meant to happen to representatives of the Council including Head of Policy & Strategy and a representative of the Mayor’s Office.
Competency criteria in the contract, which may account for the £90,000 fee, include the ability to monitor all available platforms on social media, “analysis and interpretation that goes further than algorithms and includes interpretive analysis”.
The clients are meant to have “public sector / political experience / knowledge, understanding and competence”. They should also have comprehensive understanding of the role of Mayor of Bristol and Council policies.
The ability to segment users into specific groups and an understanding of crisis communications are also listed.
When approached for comment, Conservative Leader Councillor Mark Weston said: “This is the first time I have heard of the company ‘Impact Social’ and, given the apparent cost of their contract and supposed non-partisan status, I am surprised that these monthly reports are not more widely circulated or distributed.
“Whilst social media is an influential platform for public discourse, I am far from convinced that Bristol City Council should be commissioning such specialist analytics.
“This is not well-publicised support and so it is extremely difficult to assess whether or not such research really provides value-for-money to the taxpayer.
“It is just this sort of extravagance which makes people rightly critical of continuing local government waste and misguided spending priorities.
“The Mayor still has significant resources at his disposal and these should – whenever possible – be directed towards maintaining public services that people actually want or depend upon.”
Liberal Democrat leader councillor Gary Hopkins stated: “We knew nothing about this and it is quite staggering in its gall. The cost of the Mayor’s Office is quite appalling in any case and this is disgraceful. For the record, the taxpayers of Bristol are not getting value for money.”
Green party candidate for mayor Sandy Hore-Ruthven said: “The current Mayor accuses Councillors and the media of chasing headlines and click bait on a regular basis. It turns out he is so concerned about those clicks and comments that he is prepared to spend £90k of taxpayers money to find out what you and I are saying about him. I can see no value to the city or its people of this contract to anyone but him. This is taken of money that should be spent on frontline services. Listening to people costs nothing and should be at the heart of all politicians work.”
Bristol City Council is scheduled to vote through its annual budget on 25 February 2020.
At a Resources Scrutiny meeting Deputy Mayor Cheney and Mayor Marvin Rees highlighted the “significant funding cuts” to councils in recent years of 60%. “Mayor Rees referred to the 8 years of austerity that had been imposed on this Council by central Government.”
Bristol City Council have been approached for comment but had not responded in time for publication.