Why a couple of tweets from the Department for Education over a strike threat from teaching unions leave me wondering whether there was a better way for ministers to make their point
Declaration: I am a community governor of a local primary school
The Department for Education’s Twitter account sent out four tweets on the evening of 12 December 2012 in quick succession – a screenshot of which is below:
I’m not going to comment on Gove’s relationship with the trade unions or on his education policies. Others far more experienced in these things are better placed. I’m interested in whether Twitter – or other forms of social media – are suitable outlets for this sort of message.
If this was an individual tweeting, it wouldn’t be so much of a big deal. I put out tweet after tweet all the time. The thing is, this is a huge organisation – a government department. Secondly, the issue that it is tweeting about is politically contentious – possibly even party-politically so.
Separating opinion from fact from policy
The DfE has a given policy that it wants to drive through with schools – in particular in relation to academies. The role of civil servants is to help ministers develop and implement those policies – and defend the policies if necessary. What gets civil servants into muddy waters is when they go after individuals or organisations that oppose said policies. Defending a policy is one thing, attacking an opponent is quite another.
Listing each of the tweets 1-4 from top to bottom, three of the four tweets contains an opinion – something that can be contested. Describing industrial action as ‘irresponsible’ is an opinion. It is not a statement of fact. Criticising the tactics of those opposing the policy – again, muddy waters. Civil servants should refrain from commenting on the merits or otherwise of what opponents are planning to do. It’s fine to say “These are the contingencies we have in place to handle any potential disruption to public services”, but anything more than that raises questions about impartiality.
The third tweet doesn’t do anyone any favours – saying that teachers might be in breach of their contracts. The DfE could have linked to the advice that they published here (*Wingtip* @ItsMothersWork for spotting) in that tweet, but for whatever reason, they chose not to. As a result, the tweet rather than the detailed advice is now becomes a focus of the conversation – the opposite of what you want to achieve when cascading such things.
Given that more and more lawyers and barristers are using social media, it just takes a politically-minded one with expertise in employment law in particular unpick such a statement. (I don’t think they’d be in the business of formal opinions because of liabilities if people acted on it). That said, even non-legal people have questioned that statement given that one of the actions is a ‘work to rule’ – ie sticking rigorously to the terms of an employees contract and not doing any of the many unpaid things teachers do for their schools. I was struck by just how much free time teachers give to my local school at a recent governors meeting. For those who say full-time teachers come in late and go home early and have long holidays may not have seen just how much extra work outside of the classroom teachers both have to, and volunteer to do. Things like after school sports clubs, parents surgeries (particularly important at primary school) along with continued training, development, lesson planning and evaluation.
The fourth tweet sort of names but does not name the people it sees as responsible for blocking the policy and inciting opposition. Again, that is a political point, not one civil servants should be engaging in.
What should have happened instead?
Either ministers should have gone onto the mainstream media and made their points that way – where they can be as party political as they like, or issue a simple press statement tweeting a link to it. What they now have is the worst of both worlds. With those four tweets they put out, they run the risk of only part of their message being cascaded. (I only retweeted two of the four tweets for example).
The conversational nature of Twitter versus a corporate account means that given where Whitehall is with Twitter, the civil servants behind such accounts are unwilling to engage in a detailed dialogue with Twitter users? Why? Because those running the corporate accounts are more often than not in communications directorates. They are not in policy teams. Therefore their knowledge of the detailed policy will inevitably be limited. Given the raised political interest in this policy area, chances are someone – or some people hostile to the policy but with greater knowledge and awareness of data and evidence will engage. Thus you have a comms outlet having policy rings run round it. Because of the way the DfE has used Twitter to send out these messages, it has started a conversation that is now cannot finish on Twitter. As a result, they have lost control and influence of the Twitter conversation. Not only that, the nature of social and digital media means that others – such as myself – have picked up on it and have blogged accordingly.
“Yo Pooffles, this has happened before, hasn’t it?”
It has – I blogged about it here. You can see where the similarities are. Now, some poor sausage in the policy team responsible is possibly going to wonder what happened when they get into the office in the morning. Who composed the tweets? Who signed them off? Who pressed the ‘send’ button? Were these tweets part of a wider series of media actions? (There’s nothing currently in their press notices as of 00:10 on 13 Dec 2012). Ministers may want to put pressure on trade unions to pull back from potential industrial action, but is using social media in this manner an appropriate way for them to do so? To what extent have civil servants (again) had their impartiality compromised?
[UPDATE 14 December 2012]
The General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, Mark Serwotka has written to the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, highlighting what the Union believes to be a potential breach of the Civil Service Code.