What are the rules of social media for public sector workers?

During my final year in the civil service, I started taking a very close interest in social media and its application in the public sector. Ditto with ‘cloud computing’. As it turned out, I was already familiar with both without even knowing. The only difference was that someone had come up with both of those terms to describe what I was already doing.

The first civil servant blogger that I came across was Civil Serf – who subsequently got shut down by a very nervous civil service establishment who were unsure as an institution on how to deal with this new medium of communication. The thing is, there was very little social media guidance issued by the civil service on the use of social media until the COI released guidance in 2009.

The problem with this guidance is that it only covers ‘professional’ and corporate social media accounts. Why is this a problem?

Professional and corporate accounts only cover the ‘day’ job. The mindset of many a communications directorate is that social media accounts are additional channels to get their messages out. Some departments are more than willing to announce how ‘successful’ their social media operations are by the number of followers that they have – which gives an insight into that mindset – i.e. “Look at all of these people who are receiving our messages directly to their computers and mobile phones!”

An example of this is with the Home Office and its Twitter policy.

We review all @ messages every day, but as a general rule we do not reply to them. Instead we share the feedback we’re getting from you with the appropriate people in the department. Even if we do not reply to you directly, that does not mean we aren’t listening to you.

Yet the key word in the phrase ‘social media’ is in the first word – ‘social’; it implies a conversation. That said, Twitter has its limitations – not least the problem of trying to respond to policy issues in 140 characters. How do you deal with something like that if you are (like I used to be) a policy officer within a Whitehall department?

Most Whitehall departments have internal targets for responding to correspondence from the general public – normally around 15 working days though some work to tighter limits. How should Whitehall departments deal with the culture of much shorter turnaround times in social media world? Remember that (depending on the nature of the question or issue) a number of civil servants may need to contribute to a formal response – especially if it is a complex one.

We then come to an issue that is also close to my heart – the issue of social media accounts that blur the line between the personal and the professional. One of the reasons I have found that people prefer those accounts to the standard corporate accounts is that there is a single person behind that account – which then gives you a feel for the personality behind it.

The social media accounts of politicians that make me think “Other people are running [ruining] that account” are the ones whose tweeting/posting style does not seem to correspond with either articles that they have written, their personas on the small screen, at Q&A sessions at conferences or even those that I’ve been [un]fortunate to have met. [Delete as appropriate]. In some cases, those social media accounts that bleat press releases written by advisers are the ones that make me wince – especially those that come from politicians who I know are far better than being the automated messaging system fed by what an oxbridge PPE ex-think-force/task-tank creature will look good as a sound bite.

This is one of the reasons why I try to avoid the corporate accounts that seem to be “lines-to-take generating machines.” I wrote more than enough lines to take (and even then, I wasn’t very good at it) that I don’t need to fill my post-civil-service days with more of them. Hence why Puffles follows (and prefers to be followed by) living beings rather than institutions. (Puffles is not just followed by humans, but by cats (#WLF = Whiskas’ Liberation Front), dogs and even a weyr of #TwitterDragons). The tweets that come from these four-legged friends of Puffles are on the whole far more interesting than automated focus-team-speak.

So what do these professional accounts look and feel like? They may say something along the lines of “I work for this organisation as chief bean counter but also support Accrington Stanley, collect nik-naks and eat cabbages” (or words to that effect). But one misplaced post could lead to a tabloid headline along the lines of:

YOU pay for paper-pushing beancounter to tweet about footy no-hopers Accrington Stanley!

Hence why a number of people have on their social media descriptors something along the lines of “These views are not necessarily those of my employers.”

The problem here – especially in the public sector is that some out there don’t care whether they are the views of your employers or not. If the views put out in your tweet are potentially embarrassing for you and employer, it’s a fire storm in the making.

After a couple of close friends got stung because of things said or not said on social media, I issued a very young baby dragon fairy with some House Rules – in part because Cabinet Office hadn’t issued any rules for civil servants tweeting through avatars such as I was at the time. The most important one here was about re-tweeting and what they signified. What these rules allowed me to do was to have a consistent point of referral whenever someone pulled up Puffles on a retweet with the accusation that I agreed with what was being retweeted. Regular referrals to House Rule 3 soon put an end to it.

Despite various prompting at a number of levels both during my time as a civil servant, and since my exit, I’m still awaiting Cabinet Office to publish more formal guidance on the use of social media by people in the public sector. The Cabinet Office I think needs to publish updated guidance – and soon. (Or at least launch a massive online crowd-sourced consultation on what that guidance should contain.) [If it already has and I’ve missed it, apologies]. The reason I believe it needs to do this is not just to protect civil servants but also to improve how governments and the civil service tackle problems when they arise.

One of the first rules of problem-solving is to acknowledge the problem exists. Sometimes political expediency means not acknowledging the problem in the first place. e.g.

“Will the minister apologise for the problems his/her policy is causing for all these hard-working families?”

“I will not apologise for all of the good stuff that my policy is doing to help hard working families as evidenced by statistics A, B and C and by the comments of organisations D, E and F who you can trust because the general public think us politicians are all lying toe-rags!”

If a social-media-savvy civil servant tries to crowd-source a solution to a given problem that may have been highlighted by an opposition politician or a ‘key stakeholder’ (I hate that term too), they currently run the risk of an unscrupulous or ignorant commentator coming up with a headline such as

Top manderin slams Cam on key Coalition policy!

…and the next thing you know you have a media firestorm even though it may just have been an innocent routine message from a relatively junior civil servant. (Tip for journalists – please get your heads around the grade system and hierarchies that exist within the civil service).

The sooner Cabinet Office gives guidance on what the rules of engagement are for those accounts that operate in that grey area – and the sooner the civil service as an institution stands by civil servants that find themselves in the middle of media firestorms, the sooner the civil service can harness the power of social media to solve problems. Managing the expectations of social media users before the firestorms break out will also mean that you won’t need to expend nearly as much resource in tackling such firestorms because they will be smaller in number and in magnitude.

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