Social and digital media strategies for public sector


Some ponderings and questions on what should – and should not be in these documents which will soon be mandatory for all Whitehall departments.

I should declare an interest first in that I’m working on a commission for one department that links to digital media strategies. Cabinet Office recently launched its own digital strategy, which I commented on here. Also, Sir Bob Kerslake confirmed that all Whitehall departments will have to have their own digital strategies.

Sell sell sell!!!!

“No! No! No!” is my response. Some of you may be familiar with my thoughts on social media in a political/policy sphere following the digital wave event I was at. Many of the digital natives I interact with both online and off have come to a similar conclusion about social media:

“Don’t let your marketing people near it”

To which I concur. All too often, they view social media as an additional channel to deliver given messages. Earlier this year I went to one such event where everything seemed to be about getting messages and a presence out there, with very little thought on listening and feedback. (How do you measure the good listeners and effectiveness of feedback loops?) Worse still is the presence of ‘authenticity hijackers’.

What does a good digital media strategy look like?

The problem here is the rise of social media has been so rapid that no public sector organisation of any scale has had the chance to develop, deliver and evaluate a digital or social media strategy. There are also a couple of issues with trying to define something ‘public sector’. The first is widespread outsourcing. Many public services are now delivered by private companies – companies that have issues with the levels of public scrutiny that they are now getting. Just look at Emma Harrison vs Krishnan Guru-Murthy debating A4E’s failings. Puffles’ (majority female) Twitter followers had little sympathy for Harrison.

The second is that the public sector is incredibly diverse in what it does. While there are a number of consistent processes to go through when developing a digital strategy, what you cannot do is take the digital strategy of one organisation, change the branding and say “Done it!”. The importance of taking people through a journey versus the importance of the final document was a lesson Maxine Moar taught me when the introduced me to Neighbourhood Agreements in Oldham many moons ago. The reason being that the answers to the various questions posed in the development process will give different answers depending on the nature of the organisation.

Digital is big. BIG

As this blogpost by the brilliant Steph Gray shows, digital is potentially all-encompassing. It’s not something where you can set up a digital unit or give someone a jazzy job title within an organisation and assume that this is you doing digital. The fragmentation of the public sector makes this even more of a challenge. Looking at the papers I’ve just got for my first full school governors meeting am I beginning to get a feel for the impact this fragmentation has at a hyper-local level.

“No, really Puffles, what should be in a good digital strategy?”

This list isn’t exhaustive, but a few things come to mind.

Evidence of planning and finding your baseline

Given the nature of how social media has evolved – and how many of the large organisations have been somewhat caught out on it, the first thing to ask is: “Where are we now?” Do you know what your organisation is currently doing on digital media? Do you know who is doing what and who is responsible for what? If not, you have an unmitigated corporate risk. (You cannot effectively mitigate for something whose likelihood and impact are unknown).


What do you want it to achieve? Part of me recalls the saying that “those people who read social media strategies often don’t do social media, and vice versa.” But as the link from Steph Gray showed, digital strategies go beyond social media, covering things like open data and digital archiving. Some digital strategies will have a very strong service delivery emphasis. Others may have a strong partnership working and co-ordination emphasis. Think those departments that have to work with lots of other organisations such as local authorities. In an ideal world, the purpose should make sense to the people who are going to deliver it, if not the general public themselves.


Most importantly what is outside the scope of your strategy? The reason being that digital  can be a bit like the term ‘sustainable development’ – a term so generalised as to be completely meaningless. (I wrote an essay that posed the question and the conclusion I came to was ‘yes’ – it has stuck ever since). Scope creep is the nightmare of many a project manager. Again, going back to Steph’s diagram, the number of overlaps indicates that there is a risk of this. Where will your boundaries be?

Actions and deliverables

These need to be “SMART” – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely.  Ideally they need to be evidenced (not easy given how few there currently are as comparisons in this sector) but certainly thought-through. Outside challenge from people who understand both all things digital and your organisation’s work area is useful here too.

Targets…I’m open-minded about the use of these. The public servant in me tells me ministers like reporting numbers to Parliament. It shows that they are doing something. (Sir Humphrey says activity is a substitute for achievement – or something like that. I couldn’t possibly comment). Yet the digital native in me says that such metrics can be misleading. What percentage of your Twitter followers are spam accounts? How can you measure meaningful interaction? On the last point, meaningful interaction for an organisation in my opinion means where that interaction is fed back via a systematic feedback loop so as to improve the performance of the organisation, or helping solve the problem/query raised by the citizen concerned, or both. (Happy to be challenged on that point).

Resources and responsibilities

What are you going to put into both putting together the strategy, delivering it and (continuously) evaluating it? People, time, money and skills. Who is going to be responsible for what? Do the people taking on the responsibilities have the right skills and competencies? (If not, how will you adapt your training and job descriptions?) In your baselining it is likely you’ll want to have done some sort of skills audit – if anything to find out who are the people in your organisation are already digital natives and are potential ‘advocates’ for all things digital.

“Stakeholders” in the digital world

I hate the term but I’ll go with it for now. Here we are talking interest and impact. But digitally. I use the term ‘stakeholder’ in a value neutral sense – not accounting for whether they are friendly or hostile. As far as Whitehall is concerned, there will be a number of very hostile stakeholders in the digital world. Hostile because they may not like a given policy at all, but will have a strong interest if directly affected by said policy and may well have a growing impact. Why? Because more and more MPs are beginning to use social media to crowd source questions for ministers – the latest examples being the Public Administration Select Committee and Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Continual monitoring and refreshing

In particular a demonstration of progress. One of the big opportunities here is for organisations to clearly demonstrate a willingness to share and learn.  Stephen Hale of the Department of Health has done exactly this. Through links via social media, he became aware of an open policy feed on He then posted his own examples on the DH website.

The most important elements for me here are that the digital strategy is a ‘live’ document rather than one that gathers dust on the shelves. You may want to consider highlighting the elements that are likely to change over time. (If you do, please use a robust method of version control so we don’t get confuddled!) The reason for this is because there is so much that is unknown as well as continually changing out there. Who is responsible for what monitoring and refreshing? Who is collecting what data and information? (Especially if you have a correspondence unit).

Risk and incident management

I’ve put ‘incident’ in there because your organisation will get stung. No. Really. It will. Especially if it is a big one. The problem is how to handle incidents. During my time in the civil service we did lots of risk management but perilously little simulation. As it turned out, the only time when I took part in a crisis management simulation was a couple of weeks before I had to do the real thing: Buncefield blew up. All of the systems and processes I was unfamiliar with a month before were now fresh in my memory so it was a case of applying recent learning. This is where Steph Gray’s social simulator can be handy. (N0, he hasn’t paid me to say any of this). How would you handle a social media firestorm? How are you handling them now? How do you want to handle them differently?

“That’s a lot of questions Pooffles!”

That’s the idea: The process of putting the strategy together is just as, if not more important than the strategy itself. It’s one of the reasons why it should also not be put together by a small unit alone, but one that allows people to feed into the process, providing ideas and challenge. This is important because most organisations are unlikely to have a clear picture of who has the right skills and competencies on digital and social media, let alone deploying them in the right place.

There’s also nothing more empowering or exciting (or possibly frightening!) for staff than saying: “We have this big challenge, we as senior management don’t really know how to deal with it alone, we need your ideas and input.” The traditional idea is that with age and experience comes competency and expertise in a given field. Those that are the most competent and expert (in principle) become senior managers. But because social and digital media has emerged over such a short period of time, unless they had their hands on the pulses of what was emerging, the challenge of having responsibility but neither the skills, experience nor competencies to deal with it is a shock. On the other hand, you may well have junior staff (often younger and less experienced, but not always) who are digital natives but are less aware of the corporate risks. How can you empower those junior staff to help deal with the big challenges of all things digital?

So…those are a few thoughts for now. I’m REALLY interested in your thoughts a comments. What do you agree with? What do you disagree with and why? What would you replace it with? What’s missing and what would you add? What’s in there that should not be and why?


3 thoughts on “Social and digital media strategies for public sector

  1. I remain sceptical about any attempt to use social media for any corporate purpose, public or commercial. People don’t join social media with the intention of interacting with council or government departments, and if they get fed up with pushy organisations they always have the option of migrating to this year’s new social platform. There is a basic mismatch between a social media ethos, which I would characterise as free, egalitarian, spontaneous, rambling and ephemeral, and public bodies, perceived as rule-bound, hierarchical, controlled, directed and perpetual (I hope I not being unfair!) The mismatch is beginning to show when you talk about Actions, Deliverables (does anybody use that word outside management?) and Targets. If I had any targets at all when I joined Twitter, discussing the civil service with a dragon fairy certainly wasn’t one of them, yet here I am – to get the most out of the medium you have to be ready to go where it takes you. Targets would almost certainly measure the wrong things, just because they were measurable – as if Puffles were to go to a party in the real world and measure its success PURELY by the quantities of Rioja and pistachios consumed and pay no attention to the quality of the “craic”. If your organisation truly engages with the public, this will occasionally result in changing your mind as to intended courses of action – are you seriously going to set a target of changing your mind, say, 15% of the time? Is the objective then to get this figure up, as engagement expands, or down, by the organisation learning to come up with better plans in the first place?

    I worry that the current interest by public organisations in social media is an attempt to patch over failures of traditional methods of consultation, perhaps thinking that it’s cheaper, or more likely that the true cost will be obscured by being widely spread out. It won’t work. Groups which are difficult to reach by conventional means will be even harder to reach through social media. How many vulnerable children, frail elderly, benefit claimants or double-shift workers, Asian women, Roma & travellers … do you come across on Twitter? The only group you might more easily reach is that tricky 16-25 age range, and since the most notable response of “Authority” to young people on social media so far has been to enact new ways of fining them or sending them to prison, I anticipate a degree of hostility. How are your socialising public authorities expected to respond if they encounter comments which appear technically illegal (Communications Act or Race Relations Act), or defamatory to the extent of being actionable, without snuffing out the sparks of engagement?

    This is getting too long, so a few other thoughts as quick questions:

    * How do you know who you’re talking to, if all you see is a twitter tag?

    * How do you record the conversations, feed them into decision-making, and make them available in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act?

    * If the organisation’s staff are engaging directly with the public, and perhaps even modifying plans and policy (otherwise what is the point?), what becomes of the role of elected councillors or ministers?

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