The impact of social media on Whitehall


I ran a workshop at UKGovCamp to try and tease out how attendees thought social media was impacting on Whitehall. Please read the blogpost UKGovCamp2012 (and the slide pack at the end) before reading this post.

Puffles got about everywhere – from the speaking platform, to the front row of the main hall, to the workshop itself.

(Credit to Eddie Coates-Madden for that pic)

To some people, the sight of a thirty-something bloke wandering around the smart headquarters of a big IT firm carrying a big dragon fairy around was more than a strange sight. I have no shame. I even took Puffles out for a lunchtime coffee with one of my former managers in the civil service.

Around 20 people turned up to the workshop, with a handful of people following things online or going through the slides in the previous post. I was saved by Catherine Howe who lent me an adaptor that allowed me to have the slides on the big screen. This I think was the first time I had used my current laptop for for a big screen presentation.

There was little reaction to slides covering the forming of networks. However, some people did make the point that the forming of networks as described just as easily applied to ‘offline’ communities as well as online ones. Linking up different social groups isn’t exclusive to social media – though part of me thinks that there does need to be a relative level of stability within such communities to allow this to happen. In areas with very transient communities – think some of the more economically deprived inner city London boroughs for example, people are less likely to be around for long enough for those linkages to be made.

The two issues that did raise debate and disagreement were the issues of what the rapidly growing use of social media meant for the traditional departmental press office, and what safeguards and/or guidance should be put in place for civil servants that use social media in a manner that blurs the personal and professional lives.

The press office in an era of social media.

I put it to the group that the press office as we know is becoming rapidly obsolete. The operation of a traditional press office in my experience is one of command, control and rebuttal. Commanding the actions, controlling the message and rebutting anything put out by anyone else that conflicts with the controlled message. This is very much in the mould of messrs Campbell and Mandelson in the mid-1990s. The thing is, people have now become wise to such tactics. This for me is reflected in part by the stale debates that are had on BBC’s Question Time, where it’s a competition to see which politicians can get in as many of their ‘lines to take’ as possible – as if the post-programme drinks from their advisers depended on it.

The disagreement in terms of the future of press offices was around who does what. The nature of social media for me means that policy officials are going to have to take risks. I pictured this in the slides where policy teams may have to become ’embedded’ in conversations on social media that they no longer control. At the moment, senior civil servants see this model as ‘too risky’. There are few central government bloggers that blog about their policy areas and invite genuine engagement from the wider world. Will this change? Others argued that there will still be a need for press offices, but that how they work will have to change – and substantially. The biggest example for me in terms of how this needs to change with press releases and comments from press officers. The general public can only take the word of the journalists who report on what spokespeople say. For some reason it takes ages for press releases to make it to the ‘news centre’ pages of large organisations. I think there needs to be a shorter, sharper smarter way for getting things that otherwise go out only to specialist/known journalists, to go out for the rest of us.

Protecting civil servants…from themselves?

“Don’t be a [phallic object on a forehead]” I think was the phrase that paid. I’ve jumped up and down about the need for guidance to be published by Cabinet Office. A couple of people felt that the Civil Service Code was more than enough – and with good reason.

“You must…always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings”

The issue of guidance amongst other things is about managing expectations – not just of the civil service but also of those that engage with them. There is also the issue of ensuring that civil servants that use social media are protected from the more abusive aspects of the social media world. I have a very firm line about people and accounts that disrupt either Twitter or blog. My accounts, my rules.

Where does the balance rest? On one side, we don’t want a series of rigid micro-managed rules that end up stifling any of the innovation and knowledge-sharing benefits of social media. On the other side, the conventions of digital and social media have not been set and are still ‘up in the air’ to some extent. My view is that Cabinet Office can go a long way to help shaping the conventions by producing guidance that public servants can refer.  And not just for public servants – for journalists and members of the public too. One comment suggested that this was an issue that Leveson should consider. It may well have to – the case of Night Jack – the detective blogger is going to be covered at Leveson as David Allen Green gives evidence this week.

Finally there is the issue of leadership. I think chief executives, permanent secretaries and directors need to be much more explicit as to what their expectations are on the social media usage of their staff. Amongst other things this sets the expectations amongst staff as to how social media firestorms will be dealt with. Even if there is a disciplinary case to answer, trial by media at the same time really does not help. Should such organisations be more robust in protecting their staff from such firestorms while due process is taking place? Rhetorical question. The point is that senior managers need to become much more aware of and much more savvy with digital and social media. They are doing their staff and the wider public a disservice by keeping their heads in the sand.

For those of you who attended the session, I’ve missed out on a number of things that have slipped my mind – feel free to add, comment and disagree.



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