Enquiry Week at Dept for Communities and Local Government

Summary

On DCLG’s social media use during “Enquiry Week”

Puffles bounced off a number of civil servants during DCLG’s “Enquiry Week” – one which I found out through Twitter but found no other publicity around it elsewhere. Aside from the content, this also seemed to be an occasion when a number of civil servants poked their heads above the Twitter parapet to make themselves known.

So…what was it all about?

The Department tweeted this cryptic clue:

We will be live tweeting from #enquiryweek today where community organisations & local gov will discuss how to make localism a reality.

That’s all well and good for those ‘in the know’ but I imagine there are a few people outside wanting to know what localism actually is – & in particular what the Government of the day understands it to be. Remember that David Blunkett when Home Secretary in 2004 was talking all things localism. Has the definition evolved in anyway since then? Transparency campaigners may also want to know who has been invited (& on what grounds) to debate this issue within the glass tower that is Eland House. (DCLG’s HQ). Learning for next time: When running (and live tweeting) an event such as this, a short blogpost informally covering these things (with links to definitions and participating individuals and organisations) is a good idea.

Tweeting the conversations

Essentially this was a fairly low key start as far as live tweeting of events goes. In my experience large organisations are still very wary of using social media – fearful that they will get stung. There was a noticeable sea-change around social media use in Whitehall when the Coalition came in. Many ministers had used social media as part of their election campaigning, and thus had seen the benefits of being able to engage directly with people on a regular basis. Whitehall had not really had that opportunity other than forays of individual ministers such as Tom Watson and Hazel Blears.

You can see some of the exchanges that took place inside and outside on the hashtag #EnquiryWeek – in which Puffles threw a few jellybellies and pistachio nuts into the mix. In this part, I’m particularly interested in the interaction of both the department’s corporate account and civil servants from within the department.

DCLG’s corporate Twitter account

Like many large organisations, DCLG uses its Twitter account as a means for getting information out, rather than as a means of conversing with people. The same is true for other departments such as The Home Office. If you look at the Home Office’s Twitter Feed you’ll see a minimal amount of interaction with other Twitter accounts – certainly no conversation. This for me reflects a mindset that is still stuck in the mid-1990s. For me, the most important word in the phrase “social media” is the word “social” – it implies a conversation. Compare that approach to that of Emer Coleman of the Government’s Digital Service in Cabinet Office – who was more than happy to crowd-source ideas for new social media guidance via Twitter and engage in a conversation with people across the comments section of this blog.

Coming back to DCLG’s corporate account, Enquiry Week marked a point when it started using its corporate account to live-tweet conversations from what was a week long “internal” event. It’s good that they tested the waters with this, but I’m not entirely sure what some of the 30,000+ followers will have made of a series of tweets in a subject area that is only one of many within the department’s remit.

This comes back to my point about the role of communications teams and press offices in my UKGovCamp 2012 workshops. (See The impact of social media on Whitehall, along with the previous blogpost UKGovCamp 2012). If the communications team and press officers want to use the main corporate account as one for cascading announcements, that’s their call. But I don’t know what their Twitter policy is, so I don’t know how the department officially uses the account. A number of organisations have Twitter policies to manage the expectations of users in the same way that I have house rules for Puffles and for this blog. One thing I couldn’t find on DCLG’s website was its social media house rules. Home Office has them, as does the Department for Health. If DCLG does have them, please could they make them easier to find?

With something like “Enquiry Week” DCLG could have – and I think should have set up a separate Twitter account either for the week itself or as general “events” Twitter account to cover such things. The Institute for Government has such an account (although they tend to use both their main corporate account as well as their events account when live tweeting – along with the tweets of their staff, many of whom are both on Twitter and who follow Puffles. Puffles gets around.)

As well as setting up such an account, DCLG’s communications function should also have bitten the bullet and handed over control of that account to a Twitter-savvy person within the policy unit (or close to) for the duration of the event. That way you have the policy experts able to respond to any questions or points that come through, rather than having to go through the ‘filter’ of a communications division. Because communications teams and press officers have a very wide remit, on points of detail they often contact the policy adviser concerned. While this may work – and be essential for mainstream media and broadcasters, this process is far too cumbersome for social media. My preference (as I made clear at UKGovCamp) is for policy officers to have access to social media accounts – even if at this early stage it’s a case of a named social media handler for each policy area. In the future, I think that social media will become an integral party of policy-making that the civil service won’t see it as a ‘separate’ consideration.

Enquiry Week – the content

It’s difficult to say at this stage because I wasn’t in the room, so could only go by the limited tweets that were coming out of it. The best write-up I’ve seen so far has been David Wilcox’s one titled The challenge of networking civil societyThere were a number of interesting observations too from Tom Woof and Tony Travers too. I was also interested in Kate Henderson’s comment about neighbourhood planning. (Kate is chief exec of the Town and Country Planning Association). This made me think about the role architects and developers do and should play when it comes to designing neighbourhoods. Developers won’t like me for saying it but the “Barratt Box” style of housing developments for me makes neighbourhoods…well…bland and boring. Designs are inevitably going to have to change on the back of tighter sustainability regulations in the run up to the zero carbon standard that’s due to come in, in 2016.

In terms of engaging with communities, I can’t help but feel that we’ve been here before – who remembers Communities in Control from 2008? Well…we have and we haven’t. While the desire to empower neighbourhoods has been around for quite some time, the context has changed dramatically. The grants that were available throughout the 2000s are not going to be available on anywhere near that scale in the 2010s or even the 2020s. How will communities cope?

Part of me thinks a solution involves breaking out of the silo and dealing with 2 other major issues: Unemployment and costs of living. If people do not have jobs and if the costs of living (which I blogged about here) remain sky high, funding for community projects is unlikely to come from such communities themselves. Getting people back into work (and not just any old job, but one that matches their skills, aptitude, potential and ambitions) along with reducing costs of living might just free up some people to get involved with things in their local communities. I blogged about the problem of policies colliding back in February 2012. Another illustration of this is the Government’s desire to bring communities together – which for example I think evening classes can do an excellent job – being undermined by the policies of another department. It will be interesting to see what impact the new cross-cutting objectives for permanent secretaries will have. My take is set out in more detail at the end of When policies collide – I think that we will see more ministers and civil servants cross-cutting departments to try and break some of these silos.

Interested to see what current civil servants as well as those following all things localism make of the above. (I got no sleep last night and kicked this off at about half past six this morning.) #Sleepfail.

This entry was posted in Charities and Big Society, Public administration & policy. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Enquiry Week at Dept for Communities and Local Government

  1. David wilcox says:

    Thanks for the kind comment on my post about networking civil society, but it didn’t come out of enquiry week – which I didn’t know about. It was prompted by an invitation to chat with a CLG neighbourhoods team, plus other stuff like the webinar I mentioned. However, I’m fascinated by all your insights and links and will follow avidly. There does seem to be a fresh push on localism, engagement etc but what’s new isn’t clear.

  2. Richard Harries says:

    Good feedback. Thanks Puffles. I’ll make sure we feed it into today’s wash-up meeting.

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