Why don’t civil servants blog?
One of the reasons I started writing here was to talk about some the issues I have been exploring as part of the Cabinet Office’s social media review.
Briefly, the review is examining how government currently makes use of social media, what the opportunities are and what role government should or could play in social media.
Creating an environment of permission in which civil servants can operate is a tricky one for government, there are few examples of public officials who participate in the conversations taking place across the internet (some notable exceptions can be found in the front line of public service delivery such as the ambulance man and the magistrate’s blog).
Whilst it is easy to see the benefits of closer dialogue between civil servants and interested individuals conceptually, there is understandable nervousness about the reality this might create. Top of the concern is loss of control of the corporate message, but this isn’t unique to government. Is it possible for large organisations to engage in the social media space? Increasingly I think the answer might be ‘no’.
‘Social media’ means a lot of things but its characteristics include one to one conversation, potentially uncontrollable and unmanagable, authentic voices, opinions and stories. This is not just a contrast but a threat to any organisation that operates a traditional top-down approach to its communication.
So, is it possible to close the gap between these extremes? How can organisations create an environment of trust, so that individual employees understand their responsibilities and the acceptable boundaries, and balance that with their corporate approach to communicating?
It is possible to provide guidance to employees about appropriate forms of engagement, what to do if things start to get out of hand and create potential corporate reputational problems, emphasising the individual rather than the organisation, being explicitly clear about your terms of reference (such as moderation policies, disclaimers etc). But is that enough? And are any of these problems unique to government?
My blog is not a good example of this because of the subject area I am talking about – there are hundreds if not thousands of other people discussing digital and social media. Many of them are concerned with its application in the voluntary and public sectors. The only point of interest here is the context – central government.
But imagine if I was involved in policy development on a contentious issue, say anti-vivisection. How different would the environment and the rules of engagement be then?