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?

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  1. Actually, there are some…

    City of Albuquerque, the Mayor and the City Council (though no comments)

    City of West Des Moine, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz

    City of Eden Prairie, City Manager Scott Neal

  2. Thanks Mike for those examples, I’ll check them out. I guess I was thinking specifically of the issues that face UK civil servants. Interested to understand more about the permissive environment that allows public servants to blog elsewhere though.

  3. I disagree.

    Firstly Social Media is not one-to one conversation. For every reader making a comment there will be 100 reading and taking away their own view on the messages. It’s like having a conversation with someone and having 100’s of people listening in.

    Secondly, large organisations do not have have a choice whether they are involved with social media or not. Employees will blog, make comments, chat in the pub, over dinner etc about their work and employer. Members of the public will do the same about their experiences of the organisation.

    Organisations need to choose how they want to engage with this “conversation”. Either unofficially through anonymous conversations or through trusting employees to speak. Either way it is and will happen.

    It is obvious that this is not a technical issue but a cultural issue. The simple homogenous corporate message is dead. The clear boundary between the brand or organisation and the customer no longer exists. It is blurred, multi-faceted and moving.

    Brands such as McDonalds, Nike and Microsoft have been discovering this for years. Gone are the days when they could control their corporate message or public image through TV ads and Press Releases.
    http://www.mcspotlight.org/ provides the alternative to the $2billion corporate spend
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nike,_Inc. – The Nike Wikipedia article is highlighted as having questionable neutrality
    http://minimsft.blogspot.com/ Is a Microsoft employee blog.

    The corporations can’t stop it happening they can only hope to engage with it and present their side. Press releases and TV ads will not work in a conversation. Only conversation will. Just like in a pub.

  4. We have no culture or precedent of civil servants speaking openly in the UK. You won’t often see a civil servant speaking at a public conference. And standard office rules state that if you ever get called up by a journalist, you have to pass the call immediately to the press office.

    One of the private sector companies whose blogging efforts are seen as exemplary is Microsoft. But they never made a conscious decision to let employees blog – it just happened. Pretty soon the benefits became clear, and they started to encourage it. Now there’s barely a Microsoft project or initiative that doesn’t have a blog of some sort.

    In reality, there’s little your employer could do to stop you writing about your day job, unless it breached your contract of employment or the Official Secrets Act. But will your average civil servant summon up enough courage? Probably not. Too scared of jeopardising their job or their pension. Total risk aversion.

  5. The things is that these conversations about tricky policy areas are already happening out here on the net. And by not exploring ways for government to engage the space is left for interest groups to interpret and spin what government are up to.

    I understand the reluctance to put every idea out onto the web, the fear of stray thoughts coming back to bite us is every bit as strong this side of the line as on yours. But maybe there are ways around it.

    For example, how about outsourcing: there was an blog from the institute of physics (I think) which got 3 or 4 bloggers (not scientists) to write about the energy review and the role of nuclear power. The resulting blog was very useful in part because the bloggers didn’t come to the issue with a clear bias for or against nuclear and had a brief which asked them to explore both sides.

    Or taking the DWPs pension reform blog as an example of finding a way of personalising a complex and quite technical debate.

  6. Nice post, Mike.

    Civil servants in Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere face the same issues. Personally, I blog cautiously, and studiously avoid talking directly about issues relating to my day job.

    Some links to civil servant blogs:

    http://sosaidthe.org
    http://www.psnetwork.org.nz/blog

  7. hi Jeremy

    Interesting points and a few sore ones for me!

    Other comments answer some of your questions and I’d echo Andrew’s point about there always being ways around barriers, especially if you see them in the right context, such as what’s new policy and what’s old policy, applied.

    There are a few contexts which I rarely see this discussion put in.

    First is the human rights act, our right to speech. I don’t know if it’s been tested but it was quoted to me in the advice I got before I started.

    Second is existing policy, the spirit of which is clear, that you have to keep a work/comment as citizen wall going. This fits, for me, in with common sense and practical reality.

    Unfortunately, and where it’d clang with law, this policy as-written is about letters to newspapers and local campaigning old-school. It needs updating, if only for some clarification.

    I think you’re talking as well about what are in effect promotional blogs and also about brand management.

    If you are showing what you’re doing or explaining policy, that’s what Google and other tech companies do on ‘official’ blogs. IBM are the champ here I think.

    This sort of blogging could be extremely, practically useful – through providing a quick’n’cheap mechanism to explain the greys, to link and be part of the blogosphere.

    Easily policed as well you’d think. You have to do it though like we do it to get it working well – i.e. not in a perfunctory way, feed off the enthusiasm of specialists, don’t fret over linking.

    Milliband’s blog obviously didn’t start that way – it felt a bit ‘brochure site’ – but the web’s forced it to develop.

    Your blog seems to fall somewhere in the middle. I couldn’t imagine that your work-related content contains much opinion you wouldn’t want read and conversely that your comment is clearly that.

    A lot of local authority staff are already well-versed in walking that tightrope I’d say — I think we already have an ‘environment of permission’, what we won’t face is ‘the environment of fear and backwardness vis. The Web’.

    A lot of gov. people could start blogging easily, but that other environment needs tackling first, I’d say.

    I disagree with Simon here – we do have a ‘culture or precedent of civil servants speaking openly in the UK’ otherwise what’s going on in every edition of my local paper?

    Brand management is about knowing what’s going on about you online and being present – this is probably already being used by Number Ten, to test reactions to policy and it would be nice if Whitehall shared some of its new toys :} I’m stuck with Google Trends.

    In that context, public sector bloggers could be seen as a huge asset because they’re already there. But first someone needs to get a handle on ‘there’.

    When you start talking about setting up new spaces – newscounter comes readily to mind – for the fabled ‘online dialogue with government’ I tend to think, get the first bit right. Which is being present on the Web as is.

    Forget walled gardens. Find ways to react to web developments quicker. Recognise that this is what’s going on.

    This reaction does not even need to be dialogue. Just start, post PR links, use RSS and our other tricks and develop how you do it.

    As a former commercial and NGO sector developer, I came bemused to what EGov focused on. I’m not the only one, I’ve enjoyed many moments of recognition on this score.

    A lot of what we spend energy and resources on is so disconnected from How You Build A WebSite {tm} it becomes funny. ATM just start with Google, add usability. etc..

    Frankly I hear echoes of The Cluetrain Manifesto fed through consultants out of Uni fed through Sunday Times journalists fed through Politicians. On a bad day :]

    As I mentioned on my blog more than once they should all be lining up to meet the likes of Jacob Nielsen rather than Tom Anderson.

    So being disconnected and fearful of the Web As Is goes with the territory.

    Overall, though, the fact is this is already happening and rapidly entrenching itself, as are other ways in which the web is forcing itself on government.

    It often seems to me that gov spends a long time talking about things, trying to fit things into it’s own frameworks, and by the time it’s decided to act, the Web has moved over the horizon again.

    Sorry for the ramble but as I said, a sore spot.

    Cheers

    Paul Canning

  8. Simon is right about the concept of the anonymous public servant being a deeply rooted one – in jurisdcitions everywhere. But what should be remembered is that public servants are hired for their judgement & discretion: they should be expected to exercise both when they blog.
    In the example you give, anti-vivisectionism, your first priority is to deliver effective policy advice to your Minister – anything you do that compromises that undermines the very reason you are in the job in the first place; which would leave you little to blog about…
    I think there is plenty of room to blog as a public servant, provided we remember what comes first, the service or the blog.

  9. Wow, thanks for all the comments.

    Shane – I like your point about the listeners, they are a really important constituency in all this who often get overlooked. Equally, I agree with everything you have said and that has been my message for some time – employees are going to do it anyway so its up to organisations to at least set out their expectations and remind employees of their responsibilities.

    Simon – I do see some softening of that stance.

    Andrew – identifying the appropriateness of the medium and timing is crucial. Otherwise civil servants risk falling into the traps that Jason suggests – forgetting why they are doing it.

    Ian – thanks, I’ll check those out when I get a moment.

    Jason – that is very helpful and is the health warning that all civil servants need to remember.

    • John
    • May 19th, 2007

    Simon D is wrong. Civil Servants speak at conferences all the time. I know this, as a civil servant! Most conferences about public issues wouldn’t function without them. The issue is about talking directly to the media, when it is ministers who are ultimately accountable. And one big question now is whether the internet in all its dimensions counts as “media”. How, if at all does, the CS involve itself in debates on the web, where there is a lot of incorrect information which they could correct? (Civil servants will never get involved in the rights and wrongs of an argument because that is political). It will all resolve itself in time.

  10. To Paul C, just discovered the WordPress spam filter and found your comment buried in there from a few weeks back. Many apologies and thanks for your many valid points.

  11. Can you provide more information on this?

  12. @Ambulance Service – can you be more specific? A lot has moved on since I wrote this!

  13. I’m from West Des Moines and regulary read community upgrades by our city manager Jeff Pomeranz. In addition, it’s a good example of a civil servant who blog to communicate and coordinate with members of the community.

  14. @wdmMelski – thanks for the heads up, that’s a great site, a really good example of a public servant pushing the transparency envelope. Its a shame he’s not getting more feedback from the public.

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