“Time for revolution rather than evolution?” A response to Steph Gray & GovUK friends


Some thoughts from the Open Policy Teacamp

This blogpost stems from the Open Policy Teacamp that Puffles and I went to on 2 May, and from this article by Steph Gray, who you really should be following if you are interested in public sector social media. He used to run the digital engagement show at the Department for Business, something that has now been taken on by the equally brilliant Betony Taylor, formerly of a very big bank.

I’m particularly interested in the first bullet point Steph pointed out – the idea that each policy area should have its own blog. This aligns with some of my thoughts towards the end of my civil service days when I became convinced that each policy team would need to run its own social media operation similar to how civil servants use the phone today. Long time civil servants told me that the approach to social media is similar to how departments reacted to the development of first the telephone, and then the internet: i.e. you had to be trained to use it and only certain people were allowed to use it – from a terminal at the end of the office.

“Policy teams having their own blogs? Press officers would have a fit!”

You can see it now. The mainstream media taking tweets and blogposts as quotations for excruciatingly embarrassing stories on policy going wrong. Or is that only because of how our political system is structured? This was one of the things that came out of the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange talk I was at this evening, where each of the keynote speakers, Barbara Sahakian, Mark Stokes and David Nutt (the last, infamously sacked by Alan Johnson) indicated that our policy-making structures are not suited to scientific advice.

“You turn if you want to; the lady’s not for turning”

Ironic given that many of the attributes given to Margaret Thatcher were about her insights into policy as a scientist. The idea that ‘U-turns’ are bad isn’t necessarily a bad thing – especially if the evidence in front of you changes. But for the past few decades, the idea of a policy change (for whatever reason) has all too often been seen as something of a weakness.

Personally I like the idea of policy teams using social media – it makes for a much more transparent method of policy-making. It puts policy teams at the heart of the social media network, as the diagram below from an ancient slide pack I created ages ago illustrates


The problem of policy teams not engaging with social media means that they risk being outside of conversations that they really ought to be at the centre of. This is particularly the case with academic specialists and those with frontline experience on the ground. It can be just as useful to have a practitioner saying ‘this won’t work because in my experience, X, Y & Z’ as it is the academic saying ‘studies A, B and C indicate that this policy is fraught with danger.’ What social media can do is that it can level the playing field.

One big challenge therefore is how to change both the political and media discourse around policy-making. Opposition politicians have an interest in picking out any sign of weakness in a policy – especially one that a minister has staked his or her reputation on. Hence even though the statistical evidence may indicate a policy is crashing and burning, it still continues because a minister has too much politically to lose if the policy is then changed or withdrawn. (Especially if the minister is then expected to resign over it – given that ministers quite rightly have to take policy responsibility for when things go wrong).

This also comes back to a point the Universities’ Minister David Willetts made at a talk I was at earlier this year. He said that while he was in favour of evidence-based policy-making, it could not ignore the wider political and democratic context of general elections  and governments that are elected by the people. Which is a fair point because as another academic at a different gathering said to me during my civil service days, if it was policy-by-evidence only – one that did not have democratic checks and balances, we could find ourselves living in a soviet-union-style technocracy.

‘Making policy based on imperfect information’

I remember complaining to one of my directors in my early policy days on the Fast Stream that I didn’t have enough evidence to make some of the recommendations that I was being asked to make. He said that this was one of the inevitable challenges of policy-making: you never have all of the information you want in order to make a decision. More often than not, ministers have to make decisions based on an incomplete picture. The best information available may not be all of the information that they need. The challenge for civil servants engaging in social media as a policy tool is sifting the ‘noise’ generated by social media users and sifting for the diamonds in the sand dunes.

“Anything else on what Mr Gray said?”

  • The strict ban on ghost-writing indicates that whistle-blowing mechanisms need to be improved – in particular where civil servants are being pushed to do things that are in breach of their professional codes
  • I like the idea of community managers – I’d go further and have them as being people who also go out and about all over the country to engage face-to-face as well as online. This role may also entail some trouble-shooting too where things go wrong – as they will do.
  • On the ‘field force’ I’d almost be tempted to go further and make familiarity with social media a requirement for policy roles, with an expectation that in however-many-years time, this will be a basic requirement in policy – as will understanding of basic social media analytics. Have a look at the digital video introducing it in my resources page.
  • I generally agree with the final four points – in particular the re-writing of the civil service code – and the management code too. This was something I had some very passionate debates with various civil servants during my final months in 2011. I was convinced that the code needed re-writing. They were not, saying that the code as it stood was flexible enough to handle social media. But this assumed a static policy-making model. If the policy-making model changes – e.g. MPs start replying directly to blogposts put out by policy teams, then what? (Officially, the minister responsible has to respond formally, but should such a letter be automatically be made public?)

“So…which policy team is going to go first?”

I get the feeling that this is what everyone is waiting for. Which policy team in Whitehall is on a stable enough platform (given the fallout from the recent local government elections) to try out a new method of policy-making where there is a significant level of engagement with social media users?

There’s also the question of finding one that is not particularly party-political, or one where the parameters of the big picture are broadly accepted. The reason for this is that where the parameters of the big picture are NOT broadly accepted, then this is an issue for party politics and the forums there.

And that’s the bit that I’m unsure about.

Where do you draw that line between party political debate and Whitehall policy-making? Bear in mind too that it is all too easy for civil servants to be drawn into what can be seen as a party political debate. Civil servants’ policy roles involve developing, implementing and defending government policy. It has nothing to do with attacking the policies of the opposition – or any political opponents for that matter.

For me, this is one thing I’d like to see the great and the good in Whitehall and Westminster explore in future discussions and events. The other issue is this: To what extent do ministers want to be influenced by the outcomes of social media engagement? This is important is because people won’t bother engaging if they see their engagement has no impact. If you go through a massive social media engagement exercise to develop policy only to see it vapourised by a meeting between a secretary of state and a senior lobbyist for a fabulously wealthy vested interest/party donor, then why bother? Does this then mean that a set of general principles need to be stated on how to go about developing policy in a social media world, or should it be left on a case by case, department by department basis?

Food for thought.


5 thoughts on ““Time for revolution rather than evolution?” A response to Steph Gray & GovUK friends

  1. A great piece Puffles, my only comment would be to suggest that just as this evolution is needed in the work of the civil service, so to one is necessary in the political processes which hopefully will begin to emerge as part of the process of change. It will inevitably lag the change in the first of the Whitehall departments (for whom the pain as well as gain will be greatest) but may surprise us by leapfrogging ahead once the early adopters sense the winds of change and drag most of the rest with them.

  2. Well written piece. For me the difficulty with writing a blog is that they often involve a perspective, point of view or opinion. As a civil servant and as you well know keeping neutral is key, I am always happy to ask questions and listen to debate through social media but I do have concerns about laying out my thinking and the process my thinking goes through when considering policy because as a policy is developed things change and new considerations come into play. I have to present the departments thinking even where it is different to my personal opinion and how can I do that with any credibility if everyone knows I think differently? What if my blog post is then used to score points in the commons? I can imagine the phrase “even your own officials are of a different opinion”. If there are to be blogs I think they would have to go through press offices, but then I wonder if we stray into the territory if departmental spin and the debate being slanted before it even starts. In my opinion asking questions through social media is they key to open engagement using that method rather than publishing think-pieces, which in my opinion is what blogs are.

    1. Yes, but you don’t need to approach blog posts as opinion pieces. The BIS Digital team blog, for example, is civil servants sharing their techniques, work in progress, results and challenges: http://discuss.bis.gov.uk/bisdigital/. A troublemaking journalist could make trouble from it, of course, and technically the Civil Service Code isn’t much of a defence. Hence my thoughts in the piece Puffles comments on above, that a deeper rethink of the roles between officials and politicians is needed: I imagine politicians may well be quite keen on that too, as successive governments over the last 30 years have tried to draw clearer lines between delivery and policy and encourage civil servants to take more of the public responsibility.

  3. Mr. Willets’ point is profoundly important. I think social media engagement on policy is great, but the potential gains are not as spectacular as our enthusiasm suggests. I think it is easy for civil servants to underestimate the mundane but important role played by backbench MPs. Their day to day contact with constituents is important, and some have great expertise in understanding the needs on the ground. I don’t think social media has proven it can emancipate the poor and disenfranchised, while MPs sort of have. If you think of social media as a way of lowering friction on our existing communications then fine, but as a neo-utopian policy revolution…hrm.

    …and yes, I am aware I’m making up silly phrases and neo-utopian doesnt make any sense. I’m just doing it to make it seem like I have a vocabulary…

    1. Clearly social media only enfranchises a small number of people (as is the case with all forms of engagement). Its got to be both and. Interestingly on the subject of MPs I know of one whose office set him up with a twitter account but failed to explain to him how to use it and so he gets angry with those people who send him tweets simply because he wants to receive messages via email (or post).

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