What should new Cabinet Office guidance on social media contain? What challenges does it need to address?
Just under a year ago while I was still in the civil service, I started making representations to the great and the good about updating social media guidance for public servants. Some of you may be aware of existing guidance here, produced by the COI. Some of you may have also noticed the planned closure of COI – which means that either the new guidance has to be out before its closure or Cabinet Office will have to think where best to host this guidance until the new guidance is published.
Since leaving the civil service, I have raised this issue in public forums on a number of occasions – most recently at a Hansard Society event late last year. It was at that event that the chair, Andy Williamson invited me to introduce Puffles to the audience after my local MP Julian Huppert made a passing reference in his remarks that it was “Nice to see Puffles in the audience”. I explained to the audience that I decided to sign up to Twitter under an avatar/nom de guerre because there was no guidance from Cabinet Office on how to use social media in a manner that blurs the personal and professional.
In those early days, I drafted a series of “House Rules” for Puffles – and for me. The idea came about after I realised that the character limit in Twitter profiles was not nearly big enough to get the disclaimers in that I needed, or the expectations that I wanted to set. Not hosting a blog of my own at the time, Soph Warnes was kind enough to host the original rules for me.
Today, Emer Coleman at Cabinet Office started publicly the process of writing new social media guidance by crowd-sourcing ideas on what should and what should not be included. This post covers a number of issues that such guidance (I think) needs to cover.
What problem is the guidance supposed to solve?
Over the past few years, a number of developments have happened that have completely changed the landscape in Whitehall in a manner that many ‘decision makers’ are still struggling to come to terms with. The fear and unfamiliarity in several quarters means that too many people in decision-making posts find themselves not really knowing how best to respond to the situations that they are now finding themselves in. I covered some of these in this analytical slide pack The impact of social media on Whitehall. (This link opens an 8MB .pps file) – the commentary of the accompanying workshop that I hosted at UKGovCamp in January 2012 being here.
The key developments to note include:
- The general election of 2010: Social media use by political activists and the general public was almost unheard of in the last election. In this one, people were engaging in social media in a manner that made things much more difficult for central planners in parties’ headquarters. (See 2010: The first social media election - posted before the results – for some of the trends happening).
- Social media now being a source for mainstream media articles: This includes hatchet jobs along the lines of “Look at what this public sector worker posted on their account! Isn’t this despicable?!?! Should they still be in their job?! Read this and get angry!” to journalists directly quoting what politicians have posted on their social media accounts – not in terms of catching them out but when looking to find who has said something/commented in response to a news item of the day. e.g. “In response to the Minister’s statement, an MP said…”
- The rise of fact-checking and data journalism: One of the key phrases in the final years of my time serving the Labour administration was “evidence-based policy-making”. Interestingly, a few senior managers after the Coalition came in said the civil service would have to cope with a move away from evidence-based to more ‘principles-based’ policy-making. Yet journalists and campaigners have started using social media far more effectively to hold decision-makers to account in particular when their policies appear to lack a sound evidence base.
Dealing with a social media policy firestorm: As I write this, Puffles’ Twitterfeed is showing the Department of Health (DH) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) seemingly reeling from social media policy fire storms. While DH’s one is a firestorm that has high-level political involvement, the DWP one on its welfare reform and work programmes have caused huge problems for policy officials because activists are using social media to target key partners in the delivery of this policy. Because these key partners – in particular retail outlets – have a significant public face, they are vulnerable to activist-inspired boycotts. And the activists know this too. Social media allows the dissemination of both the evidence bases and of proposed actions. Have politicians and policy officials acknowledged this?
At the same time, the publication of this new guidance allows Cabinet Office to set some expectations and some protocols on how people use social media. Many organisations already to this to some extent – such as Cambridge City Council on Facebook or Department of Health for Twitter. Currently there is a lack of consistency across the public sector as different organisations. Some see social media as a threat while others – such as Monmouthshire County Council are seen as pioneers. The challenge here is producing guidance that deals with the fear in those more cautious organisations while not overly restricting those pioneers.
I’ve lost count the number of times speakers, politicians and senior managers have talked about the importance of innovation. The problem with innovation is that it inevitably involves a high rate of failure. The problem of innovating in the public sector is that the mainstream media has a very low tolerance threshold of failure – it makes for cracking stories amongst other things. If organisations are going to innovate using social media, there’s got to be strong leadership – in particular at the top, where innovations are tried and fail. Should guidance cover this issue or is that outside of the scope?
The blurred line between professional and personal
This is the big issue that the social media guidance has to tackle head on. The line between what is personal and what is professional is no longer as clear cut as it might have been in the past. The number of public servants – and the range of roles that they have is significant. Doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, civil servants, soldiers, police officers, fire fighters, local government officials, web specialists, press officers, scientists, academics, researchers, scientists, politicians…lots of people from lots of different career paths…[
all following a not-so-little dragon fairy on Twitter] and that guidance has got to encompass all of them.
Twitter in particular is such a versatile medium that it can be a goldmine for those wanting to write a hatchet-job article. One minute you’re crowd-sourcing something, the next minute you’re having a 1-2-1 (or 1-2-2) trying to organise a post-works drinks session. One minute you’re commenting on an article written about a niche interest, next minute you’re expressing outrage over something that has happened in the news. When is a public servant fair game on what they’ve commented?
The need or otherwise for guidance on things like this was challenged by some of my former colleagues during my time in the civil service – and with good reason. They argued that the Civil Service Code was enough for most sensible people to interpret what they could and could not do using social media.
The Civil Service Management Code however, is far more detailed – one that I doubt many people have read through. It’s 87 pages long. I imagine one or two amendments will be required to update it for the social media world – in particular how to protect members of staff subject to internal disciplinary action for things they have posted on social media sites that could be deemed a disciplinary measure.
I’ve not yet seen any formal consultation or discussion pages regarding this new guidance, but if any of you have ideas or suggestions, please put them in the comments field at the end of this post and I’ll ensure they get to the powers that be in Cabinet Office.