Do civil servants have private lives anymore?


Musings from Teacamp on social media use by civil servants – in particular in a manner that blurs the professional and the personal.

This follows a discussion at Teacamp on 12 April where I briefly spoke about social media guidance. It’s a topic I’ve blogged about before – these views speaking for themselves. There were differing views across the piece on both the principles and on the application. Nick Halliday‘s blogpost summarises these issues here.

What’s my take?

This has been an issue on my radar for over a year. My particular concern being about the conventions where the line between personal and professional are blurred – something I’ve regularly commented about.

For me this comes back to the social media conventions still being up in the air. As I said in my talk, the new guidance is a massive opportunity to start solidifying these conventions. This amongst other things will have a knock-on impact on some social media firestorms if the civil service takes the view that what sort of drinking and dancing people get up to in their own time is not the media’s business – for example.

Isn’t there something voyeuristic about some social media usage?

It’s one of the reasons why I shut down my original Facebook account. I had at its peak several hundred ‘friends’ – hardly any of whom engaged with me and even fewer that I saw on a regular basis. Hence closing it down and opening a new one taking the viewpoint that collecting ‘friends’ like football stickers was so Panini Football ’88. (As part of a training workshop, I made a Facebook page for Puffles). I hardly use Facebook these days anyway, so it’s not so much of an issue other than wanting to stay in contact with the few people I know that don’t use Twitter but do use Facebook.

On the “reasonable expectation of privacy issue”, the Press Complaints Commission demonstrated it had almost as much credibility as the Football Association (in my opinion) with its adjudication on Sarah Baskerville. (As you can gather, I don’t hold either institution in particular high esteem). It’s on things like this that both Leveson and evolving guidance from large organisations such as the civil service can help influence what the conventions should be – certainly as far as institutions go.

Trolls & haters.

I think there is an issue here that’s related to issues in Puffles (*takes plate away*). It’s about standards of behaviour. The second-from-last point in Steph Gray‘s brilliant poster covers this. It may not be illegal, it may not even be a disciplinary issue, but all the same it may not put you in a good light. This is especially the case when getting involved in debates online (even if it’s not about politics – it could be winding up fans of your football team’s biggest rivals). Stuff that people would never say to people’s faces can often come tumbling out on social media – whether under the influence of alcohol or not. The computer screen cannot slap you back.

Do you need to post it?

2010 was incredibly frustrating for me in that I could not sink my teeth into debating on all things politics. It had been like that for the best part of four years, spending most of my time in politically-restricted posts. As Emer Coleman of Cabinet Office/GDS said yesterday, if what you are posting is in anyway going to make a politician less likely to believe you will serve them impartially, it’s best to avoid posting it. (Ditto as in Steph’s poster).

The same thing applied to me yesterday regarding confidentiality of what I had stumbled across during my time in the civil service. One of Puffles’ followers was one of my key partners in one of my previous roles. There were a couple of things that came up that I could have commented on but chose not to, because for me that could have been interpreted as a breach of confidence to my previous employers and, if not possibly compromising former colleagues, could certainly have caused more work that they probably don’t need.

What about private lives of future civil servants?

This was a very good question that came up – one I’ve commented on before.

The current generation of young people are the first to grow up with social media – and in a sense they are going to be the ‘guinea pigs’ for conventions, rules – and even laws that evolve from this. I started using Facebook over five years ago. Moving from being in my mid-20s to my early 30s will inevitably mean that the content will be different to someone who goes from their mid-teens to their early 20s.

The above point was made at Teacamp. I really hope we’re not in the business of telling people to shut down their social media accounts in the run up to taking on new jobs. It’s the equivalent of someone telling me that Puffles needs to stop tweeting. Sorry. Not going to happen. (House rules 1 & 7 might come back in, but that’s about it!)

My feelings about such things are similar to this post that Louise Kidney pointed Puffles towards. The idea of managers and organisations stalking personal social media accounts fills me with horror. Although the points are written in a Canadian context, the principles in them are sound and applicable to the UK and EU. Is there some information on social media sites about potential candidates that might impede organisations from making fair judgements on individuals’ suitability for posts? If organisations want to go down the route of looking for people who don’t do bad things ever, they’ll spend the rest of eternity doing so – if they haven’t collapsed or gone under in the meantime.

What about the right to be forgotten?

Because for my own sanity, there are some things that I really would like to put behind me. It’s a bit like the obsession some in the Whitehall jungle have about what so and so did while they were at school, college or university. I’m not nearly the same person as I was in those days. (There’s about 50% more of me for a start – I was dead dead skinny). Social media potentially makes it harder to be forgotten – or have things forgotten. We’ve all done stuff we’d rather regret (& especially in my case, not done stuff that I wish I’d done). I’d just rather not have it as the food for a social media firestorm.

Interestingly, the EU is taking a stronger line on this – as I blogged in The right to be forgotten – II. What impact will this line have?


3 thoughts on “Do civil servants have private lives anymore?

  1. You make a couple of points of particular interest to me. Firstly I consider FB and Twitter to be two completely different animals. I restrict my FB to friends and family only, and my comments are mainly of a social nature. I know all of my FB friends personally. I exercise a degree of
    restraint as some of my friends include my daughter and younger family members.

    Twitter, however, is where I get political, sometimes rant and enjoy jokes with people I have never met. As a teacher and trade unionist I am part of a huge community, but on Twitter I can also make contact with people involved in the relatively tiny field of visual Impairment. Two things have recently made me feel inhibited on Twitter. Recently some friends who I would rather keep safely tucked up in FB have started following me on twitter. They never write anything, but read everything I write, and then later will bring up my tweeting over dinner. I can’t help but feel that this is quite voyeuristic. More seriously, I work for a local authority, and I worry whether I could be disciplined for being too outspoken about education and politics. I have my real name on my twitter account. I don’t break the law and I am not ashamed of my views, but I am considering removing or changing my name to allow me a degree of anonymity.

  2. I entirely understand the need to bite your own knuckles sometimes on twitter or reading newspaper comment threads.

    Politics here in Scotland is particularly charged t the moment. Privately, I have a viewpoint, but some of the opinions expressed, sometimes by senior Politicl figures are so divisive and in some cases fallacious, that I have a hard time keeping my opinion to myself

    But we can’t, just can’t comment

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