Social media guidance for public servants


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.


21 thoughts on “Social media guidance for public servants

  1. Thanks for posting this and helping to generate discussion on the topic. I look forward to capturing any comments from your readers to feed into the debate. For me I think the challenge is having guidelines that help and encourage use of social media in government while managing the the problem that @Paul_Clarke tweeted today as in “don’t live in fear mistakes are human”…@euan also talks about this in his book Organizations Don’t Tweet People Do when he says that we all need to grow up. I guess its trying to understand how we can grow up in government and be ok with making mistakes and work with the mainstream media to see is there a place where its ok for public servants/civil servants to fail (especially if they do this in a very public social/web space) and for that to be seen as a means of learning…not a “gotcha” offence. I guess we will just have to see.
    Emer Coleman
    Deputy Director of Digital Engagement
    Government Digital Service

    1. I think you’re pointing to a much more deeply-set culture of paralysis within the public sector. Never mind *tweeting*, many public servants spend a sizeable chunk of their career trying to avoid miatakes and basically doing nothing in the process.

      1. I agree Mark. It’s never about technology or tools and all about behaviour and culture change. That said. Even in my short time in Whitehall I have met many Civil Servants locked out by infrastructural problems which frustrate their efforts to access these platforms. So I guess its about opening up and engaging…in a behavioural sense… and giving permission in leadership and IT to enable two way communication to flow.

  2. I think Puffles might have tempted me to comment on a blog for the first in a very long time…

    I hope and believe that – long term, when social media isn’t new, and social media behaviour is fully part of social norms – we won’t need civil service social media guidelines. All we’ll need – all anyone will need – is the Civil Service Code, and some common sense.

    We’re not there yet. Things are still immature. And as Emer says, some of that immaturity comes from the mainstream media. A quick skim of recent Twitter-inspired stories does little to convince me that this ravenous appetite has gone away – if anything it has got worse. Same old elephants, same old room. And from the press’s perspective – what incentive is there to change? If public servants are making themselves (and their frailties) open in this way why shouldn’t the press use it hold them to account?

    But there is hope – things are changing. All lottery wins used to be national news – nowadays only very big wins make the nationals. Perhaps social media ‘slip-ups’ will go the same way. That would suggest an engagement strategy built around normalisation – showing how widespread, how commonplace, how boring SM use is in Government – rather than experimentation. Individual CS job descriptions including ‘Social media licenses’, a few high-profile cases where CS are visibly and robustly *not* disciplined (etc.) for making such mistakes, and some thicker skins all round… are some of the things that might move this along.

    Looking forward to the debate!

    Robin Riley

  3. Developing basic skin in the social media game by creating competencies that address, for example, the shifting inter-relationship between personal and corporate reputation or threshold standards of good practice, is obviously important.

    One of the important challenges here though, I believe, lies in addressing how government agencies move beyond bureaucratic communication to create cultural and social meaning, elevating communication into an articulated sense of purpose, department by department, area by area, that people really can buy into.

    Constituencies of interest are not sustained by basic functionality alone, though that is Step 1. Constituencies of interest are the fuel for future strategy and can be engaged through social media far more powerfully if a credible social culture exists – ‘It’s not about the tools and channels, it’s about the relationships and the behaviours’ as Clay Shirky once put it.

    How can social media governance enable this kind of development beyond basic protocols as part of the social contract? Social leadership involves getting to grips with this.

  4. Robin – thanks for your comments. I would also say my experience in @londondatastore taught me that introducing change in the public sector around social media/open data involved a relationship between state + digital disrupters + media – so journalists like @charlesarthur were crucial in helping the open governance/social media debate along. I see it as the difference between focusing on relationships rather than headlines. If I tweet about my work then I expect to be held accountable…and criticised if people disagree. But in my experience (and that includes a former life as a communications person for local government in Ireland, in London and now for Gov.UK) being open and transparent has never (in over a decade) resulted in journalists taking a pop at me purely because they can. Why would they really/and so what if they do? As a former journalist myself I am robust enough to know that sometimes paper just needs ink and on a slow news day it’s all up for grabs. What we need is the ability to treat journalists like our other colleagues – i.e. provide a really good service to them.

    We need to provide a communications service that is credible, efficient, supportive and understanding of their pressures – that what’s a good communications service does – we need to be less defensive and understand that we need the media to help us do our jobs better. If we can explain the restrictions and constraints that we operate under, and ask for their help then we may get to a point where there is more understanding. Remember many journalists see the kind of pay scales and benefits that working in the public service/civil service brings when they receive very little for their hard work and efforts (many of them work much harder/longer hours than we do for far little recompense) the debate about the media and responsibility only has merit when we work as hard as they do and when we make ourselves available on the timelines that they operate on and stop expecting them to understand and communicate on our timelines. I hope that makes sense.


    1. I think I agree with all of this – and certainly on the point that good journalism is integral to accountability, and is often a partner in progress. I think the problem is the intolerance and over-reaction when someone makes a mistake (and it’s worth noting how journalists can also be subject to unfair criticism – perhaps more than anyone – when they’ve made minor mistakes in social media). Even worse is the internal perception of the dire consequences that making such a mistake would have – much worse than the reality. It is this internal perception that I think leads public servants either not to engage in social media, or to engage in process-driven, un-engaging ways, a long way from the sort of genuine collaboration we’re aspiring to.

      Perhaps we need some myth-busting facts and figures – on the very real benefits (for all concerned) versus the very small risks?

  5. I think social media guidance will inevitably be written/produced in relation to the prevailing culture. Organisations that have liberated their staff to think and act for themselves can produce guidance on one side of an A4 page, as Kraft/Cadbury have done (and that was mostly pictures). I fear that the guidance for civil servants will turn into a tome, covering every eventuality and every conceivable risk. The problem then is getting people to understand and use it (adapting my mantra for KM – if you can’t hold it in your head you won’t understand it).

    What I’m not entirely clear about is whether this guidance is about communication with citizens and other departments, or about social media for collaboration and knowledge sharing. Or maybe it’s both, but the latter is not going to be facilitated by a document, whether one page or fifty. It’s not even something that can be taught – you can’t teach people to share knowledge. It does come back down to people and behaviours, as some of the previous contributors have noted. I don’t think “culture change” is the whole answer, but it will have an influence, and (IMHO) it has to come from the top in order to take root.

    However, if the guidance is primarily focused on communication and engagement, then maybe these links will help:

    Social Media Policies and Guidelines:

    I maintain this list as part of various social media training events I run.

    Maybe check out the 100+ policies and guidelines first – there will hopefully be something there that could be re-used.

  6. Good article. Like Steve I also fear a tome and a raft of hastily re-written social media strategies (sigh). The more you try and control social media the more people in the organisation equate it with risk instead of opportunity and decide not to engage. Either that or they anonymise, go off grid and undermine the very control the organisation sought to leverage in the first place. I know what you mean about evidence-based policy although a saw a good deal of policy-based evidence when I worked in the sector! Ultimately the success of social media in the public sector comes down to individual responsibility, a relaxing of the risk profile, a paradigm shift in the habitual culture of blame and a few well-defined lines in the sand. As Steve says, if you can’t hold it in your head, then you’ve probably over-engineered it.

  7. Andrew I agree with your summary there and indeed with Steve so hopefully we can reflect that in our output which of course I am happy to share for comments when we reflect on all the comments and inputs received to date. Thanks for taking the time.

  8. I started to write a reply for this, but it ended up being more appropriate for the thread under the Politicisation of the Civil Service article. You can read the full gist of my argument there, but the quick summary is that I’d argue that the problems are far wider and far more serious than simply Social Media and how not to fall on your sword in front of several million twitter users, and that we’ve actually seen a Social Media/Net-enabled sea change in how the Civil Service is regarded, with society moving into a much more adversarial relationship with Civil Servants. Combine that with overt politicisation of departments like DWP and you have a recipe for a far more fiery relationship between Civil Servants and the rest of the population than has historically been the case.

  9. The guidance should be as long as it needs to be. As others have commented, the culture of the organisation is key – and the civil service culture as it stands is not such that we can get away with ‘don’t be a dick’.

    I’ve written some guidelines for Scottish Government staff (which I’ve shared with Emer). It’s not a single side of A4, but nor is it a tome (it’s about 4 sides of A4). It doesn’t cover all eventualities but it does (I hope) provide a framework for participation. It’s a level of detail that has been asked for.

    PS. I’ve always quite liked the New Zealand government’s Guide to Online Participation: It is structured to provide 3 levels of detail:
    1. Overview – provides a brief but holistic introduction to Online Participation for all readers.
    2. Snapshot – offers a strategic review of each section’s essential elements for policy officials and business managers.
    3, Full story – provides indepth assessment and more operational detail for those responsible for putting it all into practice.

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