How can civil servants make better use of social media?

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve been posting on how various bodies – think tanks, commissioners of public services, and trade bodies – can make better use of social media such as Twitter. In this post we consider how civil servants can use social media in their work – and suggest why many of them aren’t at the moment.

Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, has recently been explaining why he sees social media as a vital tool for the civil service and why he’s on Twitter himself (@sirbobkerslake). Kerslake acknowledges that social media is changing the way government works, and says it will have an increasingly important role to play in formulating and delivering government policy. Significantly, he recognises that social media isn’t a ‘one-way’ broadcast medium, rather the civil service should embrace social media as a means of listening to and engaging both with staff and the public at all stages in the policy process. This is a radical and progressive view.

It’s a pity then that the advice government is giving itself fails to reflect this. The Government Digital Service and Home Office recently launched new guidance on social media for civil servants called Lets Get Social [sic]. The first paragraph of the guidance certainly supports Kerslake’s vision: “The Government wants to be part of the conversation; understands that it cannot do everything alone or in isolation and will work with those who can and are willing to help.” Yet most of the guidance’s ‘Ten tips for using social media’ are defensive – they aren’t so much encouragements to experiment with social media, rather warnings not to screw-up:

  1. “Have a clear idea of your objectives in using social media (behaviour change/service delivery/consultation/communication);
  2. Learn the rules of each social media space before engaging;
  3. Abide by the Civil Service Code and ask for advice if you are not sure;
  4. Remember an official account belongs to the Department not the individual;
  5. Communicate where your citizens are;
  6. Build relationships with your stakeholders on and offline – social media is just one of many communication channels;
  7. Try not to channel shift citizens backwards (move from email to telephone for example);
  8. Do not open a channel of communication you cannot maintain;
  9. Understand when a conversation should be taken offline;
  10. Do not engage with users who are aggressive/abusive.”

Of course, government is a sensitive business, and its business needs to be handled sensitively. But advice like this seems more likely to inhibit than inspire civil servants to explore the potential of social media (for a more positive and hopefully encouraging alternative, see our own ‘Five top tips for think tanks in using social media’).

Moreover, as in any organisation it helps if leaders model the behaviours they wish to see in employees. Why then do only six of the civil service’s 38 leaders have Twitter accounts (highlighted in bold in the table below). It’s not as if these people have to tweet themselves (many very busy leaders in organisations authorise others to tweet or blog on their behalf). While we wouldn’t expect the heads of MI5 and MI6 (pictured above) to be tweeting furiously about what they’re up to, it does seem odd that the Permanent Secretary for Culture, Media and Sport doesn’t have his own social media presence. The rest of government needs to be less like the Secret Intelligence Service and more like an open intelligence service – inviting and drawing on expertise and insight wherever it is.

The irony is that the Government agrees. As part of its efficiency and reform agenda, the Government is pushing for more of its services to be ‘digital by default’. It also thinks that more of its work should be conducted using networked technologies and social media. Last week the Government published its civil service reform plan, which includes some very interesting and potentially radical ideas on ‘open policymaking’, for example through:

  • commissioning policy development from outside organisations such as think tanks;
  • crowdsourcing questions to shape the definition of the problem (not just consulting on solutions);
  • using ‘Policy Lab’s to draw in expertise from a range of people and organisations and test new policies before they are implemented;
  • making more data available freely so experts can test and challenge approaches effectively; and
  • using web-based tools, platforms, and new media to widen access to policy debates to individuals and organisations not normally involved.

If you’ve read this blog before, you won’t be surprised to hear that we think all of these ideas are worth further consideration and development. But if leading civil servants aren’t using something as simple as Twitter to tell us what they’re doing – if they aren’t personally confident that social media is worthwhile – what does this suggest about their appetite to use technology to open-up policymaking?

As ever, your thoughts and comments are welcome – including via Twitter on @guerillapolicy and @newthinktankuk, this blog, and on our homepage.

Civil service leadership (those with Twitter accounts are in bold)

The table below is taken from the civil service website here. However, the published list is substantially out-of-date. This is hardly a good sign for a Government that wants to be ‘digital by default’. Guys, please update your own staff list! The list is inaccurate in the following ways:

  • Jon Cuncliffe has become the UK’s Permanent Representative to the EU;
  • Peter Ricketts is now British Ambassador to France – replaced by Sir Kim Darroch;
  • Philip Rutnam is the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport;
  • Lin Homer is Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary at HMRC;
  • Ursula Brennan is the new Permanent Secretary at the MoJ;
  • The MOD’s Director General for Security Policy, Tom McKane, has become the acting Permanent Secretary;
  • The Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is Dr Malcolm McKibbin, Permanent Secretary of the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister;
  • Richard Heaton is the First Parliamentary Counsel;
  • Gillian Morgan has announced she is retiring.

However, this doesn’t affect the overall result – professional Twitter use by the senior civil service leadership is very, very limited.

Sir Jeremy Heywood Cabinet Office (Cabinet Secretary)
Sir Bob Kerslake (@sirbobkerslake) Head of the Civil Service & Permanent Secretary for Communities and Local Government
Ian Watmore (@ianwatmore) Cabinet Office (Efficiency and Reform) (but he’s just about to leave the civil service)
Sir Jon Cuncliffe Cabinet Office (International Economic Affairs and Europe)
Sir Peter Ricketts Cabinet Office (Security)
Keir Starmer QC Crown Prosecution Service
Martin Donnelly Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Jonathan Stephens Department for Culture, Media and Sport
Chris Wormald Department for Education
Bronwyn Hill Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
Mark Lowcock (@DFID_Mark) Department for International Development (but he has only sent two tweets)
Lin Homer Department for Transport
Robert Devereux Department for Work and Pensions
Darra Singh Department for Work and Pensions (Chief Executive of Jobcentre Plus)
Moira Wallace Department of Energy and Climate Change
Una O’Brien Department of Health
Professor Dame Sally Davies Department of Health (Chief Medical Officer)
Sir David Nicholson Department of Health (NHS Chief Executive)
Simon Fraser Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Professor Sir John Beddington (@uksciencechief) Government Chief Scientific Adviser
Iain Lobban Government Communications Headquarters
Dave Hartnett (@D_Hartnett_HMRC) HM Revenue and Customs (Second Permanent Secretary) (but he has never sent a tweet)
Sir Nicholas Macpherson HM Treasury
Tom Scholar HM Treasury (Second Permanent Secretary)
Dame Helen Ghosh Home Office
Ursula Brennan (@urs18) Ministry of Defence (but she has a private account, and has only sent 13 tweets)
Bernard Gray Ministry of Defence (Chief of Defence Material)
Professor Mark Welland Ministry of Defence (Chief Scientific Adviser)
Jon Day Ministry of Defence (Second Permanent Secretary)
Sir Suma Chakrabarti Ministry of Justice
Sir Bruce Robinson Northern Ireland Civil Service
Sir Stephen Laws Office of the Parliamentary Counsel
Sir Peter Housden Scottish Government
Sir John Sawers Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)
Jonathan Evans Security Service (MI5)
Paul Jenkins Treasury Solicitor’s Department
Jil Matheson UK Statistics Authority
Dame Gillian Morgan Welsh Assembly Government

How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work?

How can trade bodies make greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work? Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope, argues that public sector trade bodies could make much greater use of social media to improve the impact of their policy and research work.

The lifeblood of trade bodies is to represent the interests of their members effectively to Government. Generating impact from their policy and research work is critical to both maintain confidence of members but also to ensure that their organisations have a credible platform from which to lobby from. Social media can help to achieve this – especially if trade bodies wish to set the agenda not just respond to it.

Like many people in my position, I’m often invited to meetings held by trade bodies, which are intended to try to capture and reflect the views of their member organisations. I tend to take a lot away from them and, like many participants, I appreciate the opportunity to network at these events. I recently took part in a consultation event on one area of government policy, which involved drawing together 40-50 individuals from the leading organisations in the sector to discuss a series of policy recommendations to improve this area of policy. The event was summarized in a report that was submitted to the Government. It was a well-attended event and a good quality report emerged as a result. However, it also prompted me to think: how could social media have helped to achieve a better outcome?

At the moment, we’re thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media and the internet generally. Could this approach be applied to trade bodies in order to generate greater impact from their policy and research work? On this blog we’ve already discussed the potential benefits that could be gained from social media to the development of policy and research, especially by inviting collaboration from a wider group of people who use and provide public services. These lessons, we believe, also apply to trade bodies.

Social media can help trade bodies in the following ways:

  • Help them to work collaboratively with their members to set the policy agenda in an open and transparent way;
  • Reduce the costs of involvement such as travel and time costs;
  • Enable ongoing dialogue between members and trade bodies, which allows for greater time for reflection and consideration;
  • Provide greater transparency over what happens to the contributions that people make, so that they can see the connection between the ideas they offer up and the final product;
  • Engage more people, in particular frontline practitioners and service users who bring a different perspective on the issues to hand;
  • Strengthen relationships between trade bodies and their membership and in particular to deepen these by engaging more people in member organisations;
  • Hook the media early on in order to build interest, rather than relying on a press release at the end of a project.

Social media offers other possibilities for trade bodies. A dedicated social media community would also enable trade bodies to conduct quick trawls for case studies and evidence to enable them to respond to an increasingly fast media cycle or to collaborate more effectively with partners. Finding the right case study to articulate your ‘policy ask’ can often be critical in generating interest. Social media enables also trade bodies to expand their networks, and since many journalists already use Twitter as a main news source when researching articles, trade bodies need to increase their social media visibility if they are to continue to be heard.

There are obvious barriers to adopting such an approach, not least that this way of working could be quite different to the way that some of the organisational members of trade bodies work. Developing policy in an open and collaborative way might also be daunting – what happens if you arrive at a different conclusion to the one you expected? There are also concerns about accessibility of this kind of technology, since generally-speaking social media is more popular with younger workers.

Yet the benefits are likely to come in terms of the impact of trade bodies’ work. The Spartacus Report is a model to learn from – but also a warning. This report on welfare reform was developed by disabled activists using social media. The impact was significant with it trending no 1 on Twitter before hitting mainstream media including Newsnight. This example shows that in a crowded media agenda, it is important to think creatively in order to cut through on behalf of members and their issues. It also points to a potential risk for trade bodies in that they could face competition from groups who can claim to represent their members, as social media facilitates the formation of new common interest groups.

Social media offers up a range of possibilities for trade bodies to increase the impact of their policy and research work on behalf of their members. It allows them to strengthen their relationships with their members, gives them a better chance to cut through, represent their members and ultimately influence Government policy.


How could commissioners make greater use of social media?

How could commissioners make greater use of social media? Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

In the previous two blogs I have argued that an open, iterative approach to commissioning where citizens and providers collaborate with commissioners will ultimately lead to better, cheaper services.  In this blog I will consider how social media can be utilised by commissioners to achieve this objective.

Social media is an important tool that commissioners are missing out on. As I’ve suggested previously, social media is a way to engage a wider community of people around a particular issue and allows for the discovery of new ideas and networks of people. Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process, which involves a range of disciplines including research, analysis and evaluation – all areas where social media could play a helpful role. To adopt social media at scale in the commissioning landscape means that the expected skill set and training offered to commissioners would need to change to include social media as a key part of this.

Social media also offers up the opportunities for professionals to collaborate with each other, which has been pointed out in a comment from Alex Kenmure at Camden Council on an earlier blog post. In developing Guerilla Policy, we have considered its potential as a platform to facilitate collaboration between professionals within a sector as well as between sectors. Commissioners, whose numbers are under pressure, often don’t get the opportunity to collaborate and share ideas with each other or with potential providers. Social media could really help in this regard.

As I’ve argued in the first blog in this series, commissioning is often effectively a ‘closed shop’. I was involved in one recent national commissioning opportunity. The funding stream was a brand new one that targeted troubled families, and the government department launched a consultation exercise with prospective bidders on the proposed programme. The programme also involved close cooperation with local government (as they would be the source of referrals), yet they were not involved in this consultation and instead bidders were asked to contact them as part of the four-week commissioning window. The approach to involvement of these stakeholders was weak and rather late in the day, which meant that the ability to influence of the design of the programme was constrained.

Social media could have added significant value here as a cost-effective platform to facilitate a wider discussion between prospective service users, local authorities and providers. This example also points to a wider challenge that Guerilla Policy seeks to address, which is that too often the people who use and provide services are involved to comment (at best) on an already defined agenda rather than being involved in setting the agenda.

How could social media help? The commissioning cycle could be re-imagined as an iterative rather than linear process. The way we commission involves a number of different skills and disciplines, which a linear process could draw out and utilise. Safeguards could easily be built into the process to protect the interests of taxpayers, providers and service users.

This argument isn’t really about specific social media platforms or technologies but rather is about how to open up commissioning to wider participation of a community of interest for which social media could be a valuable tool.  As a starter for ten the following areas of the commissioning cycle strike me as primed for opening up using social media:

  • Undertaking a population needs assessment – could this be crowdsourced? The needs assessment conducted by the public body could be shared publicly as part of the commissioning process with comments invited from the community on the analysis that has been reached.
  • Developing tendering documentation – could suggestions be generated through a community blog site? Could aspects of the documentation (e.g. the outcomes the service is looking to achieve) be shared publicly with comment invited?
  • Scoring and selection of proposals – whilst this is a sensitive area because of commercial sensitivity, could a closed community (and anonymising of bids) be used to crowd source the scoring of bids?
  • Evaluation and monitoring – could users be invited to blog or upload a film to a YouTube channel documenting their experience and feedback on the service commissioned? Social media can play a role as a research tool, e.g. a hashtag could be set up on Twitter and this could be used as a way to trawl for comments and people to be invited.

Community Budgets, which are being piloted in 16 different areas to support families with complex problems (involving 28 different local authorities) and the recent announcement of whole-place and neighbourhood-level pilots, both offer up opportunities to experiment with social media. These pilots are designed to make better use of resources including local knowledge, community assets and voluntary effort, and afford greater control to local people over services. Making use of social media as part of the commissioning process could offer real benefits to these communities.

Ultimately this comes back to culture. Are we prepared to take risks and try something new? Social media can help to open up commissioning. It means that commissioners could involve a wider community ensuring both greater accountability and buy-in to commission services that deliver better outcomes, potentially for less money. Where and how do you think that social media could be applied in commissioning?  What are the constraints and where are the opportunities? Tell us what you think.


What role could social media play in commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

In the first blog we considered the need to open up commissioning and this is where social media can help. Social media offers a range of tangible benefits for commissioners, which mirror those that we have documented for the policy and research community (and are the inspiration behind our Guerilla Policy platform). It is cheap and easy to use. It can provide a way for commissioners to engage citizens and providers in the commissioning process. It can play a significant role in building the confidence and trust of citizens and services users in what is actually selected because the commissioning process has been conducted in an open and collaborative way using social media.  Most importantly it can help commissioners to improve the quality and impact of services by opening up commissioning to new people and ideas.

When it comes to social media, commissioning seems like it’s in the dark ages. Even half of MPs now have an active Twitter account – yet a Facebook page or Twitter account would be seen as unusual, even regarded as risky, for a commissioning team. This means that commissioners are missing out on the opportunities that social media offers to collaborate with the people who use and provide public services to commission services that better meet need and use resources effectively.

Social media is an accessible, mass-market technology that is increasingly blurring the distinctions between ‘producers’ and ‘consumes’ of services.  Social media is a platform for collaboration.  It can facilitate the discovery of new or different insights about a social problem.  It can allow ordinary citizens, people who use and provide public services and commissioners to come together to co-design products and services.  More people involved means that more ideas are considered and there is greater transparency over what is actually commissioned resulting in good quality services that deliver better outcomes.

Social media is not a panacea and is at the end of the day a mechanism to support a wider shift in commissioning patterns from a command and control approach to one that is iterative, open, citizen-centred and reflects the lived experience of users.  A good example of this shift is the Make it Work service in Sunderland.  The service design agency Live:Work were commissioned to work in partnership with Sunderland City Council to design a new service to support hard to reach unemployed people secure employment.  Make it Work was designed through a collaborative process involving over 280 practitioners, employers and clients.  It became a two-year and £5m Working Neighbourhood Fund Service which has supported over 800 people, of who 200 have secured work (at a cost of less than £5,000 per person).  Where this example differs from the norm is that the commissioning cycle was broken up with the ‘needs analysis’ and ‘development of options’ phases undertaken by Live:Work, with a provider then selected to actually deliver the service.  The reach of these examples is going to be limited in an era of public sector cuts, but social media offers up a way to collaborate with citizens in the earliest stages of commissioning (building on this example) at far less cost.

Pepsi Refresh provides further inspiration for how social media could play a role in commissioning.  A web platform – http://www.refresheverything.com – was used to crowd source project ideas that could receive funding.  Up to 32 projects could receive funding each month.  The platform gauged the reaction of people to proposed projects to assist in determining those that should receive funding.  There are obvious parallels here with commissioning.

Both of these examples point to a different commissioning process, which is open, collaborative and built on the needs, lived experience and aspirations of those who will ultimately benefit from the services that are commissioned.  Social media provides a way  to help spread these approaches by providing the means to engage citizens and service users at far less cost and in a more focused way.  A local authority could for instance crowd source a needs assessment or use a social networking site to record people’s experiences of a service that is commissioned.  In the next blog, we will go onto further consider how social media could be used in the commissioning cycle.

The use of social media challenges the conventional way of commissioning as discussed in the previous blog and there will inevitably be concerns about the use of social media from commissioners and providers.  Obvious objections include how will this mesh with competition law, how do we up skill commissioners to adopt these methods, could the process be hijacked by a small minority motivated by a particular agenda and how can the commercial sensitivities of providers be protected?  All are genuine concerns and as a Director of Development for a large national disability charity I share some of them; yet these should not be barriers to change.  There are ways to remove these.  Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process that could be re-imagined as an iterative process, which we will consider further in our next blog.

Now social media should not be seen as a cheap alternative to commissioning of services.  This is not an agenda for cuts.  It will still need to be resourced, but it does hint at a new way of working for commissioners that we will look at in our next blog.  It is also not a panacea to solve all problems with commissioning.

Ultimately, why social media offers benefits to commissioners is that it helps people to feel that their voice is heard in decisions that are made about services that should be commissioned in their area.  Surely that can only be a good thing?


Could social media help to open up commissioning?

Chris Sherwood, Co-Founder of Guerilla Policy and Director of Innovation and Development at Scope argues that commissioners should use social media as a way to collaborate with citizens to open up commissioning.

This is the first in a series of blogs that will look at how commissioners can embrace social media. Opening up commissioning can play a significant role in ensuring local accountability over what is commissioned ultimately leading to better, cheaper services. Social media could help.

The NCVO defines commissioning as “…the process of finding out about public needs, then designing and putting in place services that address those needs.” Commissioning is a complex, multi-disciplinary process involving research and analysis, design, procurement, contract management and evaluation. Commissioning has often been overlooked by policymakers but there is increasing recognition that it is an important policy lever as increasing amounts of public services are outsourced, a direction of travel that the Coalition has committed to speed up.  David Cameron set out in a speech in July 2011 a commitment to open up public services by challenging the ‘presumption’ that the state should deliver services rather than the voluntary or private sector.

Commissioning has traditionally been a function of public bodies like central government departments, local authorities and NHS bodies. However increasing amounts of public services are actually commissioned by the private and voluntary sector; with the Work Programme being the best example of this with private prime contractors responsible for commissioning a range of providers in their supply chain.  Commissioning by the private and voluntary sector offers up opportunities for innovation but there are also equally concerns about how services are commissioned by these bodies.

Commissioning is still largely a ‘closed shop’, operating in a bubble of the ‘professional knows best’ culture with activity taking place behind closed doors. Bureaucratic hurdles such as requirement of bidders to provide three years of accounts or TUPE obligations and perceived legal barriers such as EU competition law stifle the appetite for innovation and collaboration. This results in only limited engagement with relevant stakeholders either at the beginning of the commissioning process or after it has been completed.

This ‘closed shop’ approach to commissioning hampers innovation as the insights and ideas of providers and citizens are neglected or ignored.  Collaboration between providers is constrained because this approach results in competition rather than partnership, with providers reluctant to share any of their ‘added value’ for fear of it reducing their advantage when it comes to the scoring of their tender.  Finally, it reinforces inertia as commissioners are reluctant to de-commission or radically change what is commissioned.

There have been some innovations on the fringes of commissioning, but these are not yet the mainstream. Participatory budgeting is a process that many local authorities have adopted to engage local citizens in deciding how to spend small pots of discretionary funds. It was developed in Porto Alegre in Brazil has since been adopted in the UK. In my own borough of Lambeth residents were asked to decide which community projects should receive investment from a £250,000 investment pot. Residents were not able to suggest projects but could decide which of those offered up should receive funding.

Whilst Turning Point’s Connected Care uses a community research model to support the commissioning process.  Community researchers are involved in the development of a comprehensive needs assessment to inform what is commissioned. These researchers are local citizens who have received training to take part in a structured research process. The model has obvious benefits in that the local community plays an integral role in helping to shape what is commissioned but this approach has been criticized for being too expensive.

Both of these models offer interesting insights about future possibilities for a more collaborative and open approach to commissioning, where citizens play an active role as ‘producers’ as well as ‘consumers’ of services. Their reach could be expanded further through the use of social media. Community researchers could for instance use social media to crowd source quantitative and qualitative data to inform the needs assessment. Yet both of these examples operate at the fringes of public services. Examples of where citizens are engaged in designing services that help the public sector respond to the big challenges of cuts, an ageing society and climate change are harder to come by.

At the moment, we are thinking about the wider application of Guerilla Policy. Guerilla Policy is an experiment in how research and policy development can be opened up through the use of social media. Could this approach be applied to commissioning? So far we have talked a lot about national policy in our work (and it would be interesting to speculate on what the Work Programme would look like if the design had been crowdsourced). However, most commissioning however takes place at the local level, so the ‘guerilla policy’ approach also needs to be applied locally. In this series we will consider what role social media could play and where commissioners could adopt this approach.


5 top tips for think tanks using social media

This is a summary of a presentation to the London think-tank summit ‘At the intersection of traditional and social media’, Europe House, 15th June 2012, by Mike Harris and Chris Sherwood.

In our day jobs we work at existing organisations – a well-known think tank and a large national disability charity – that hope to inform and influence policy. We’re not representing these organisations today, but we think that how these types of organisations go about engaging in policy needs to change in a social media world – that policy ‘expertise’ and authority is being increasingly challenged, and that social media offers incredible opportunities to develop policy in new, far more open and collaborative ways.

In this presentation we want to explore how think tanks can better engage with social media in order to achieve their objectives. What are the key characteristics of effective organisations, and how can think tanks reap the benefits of this cheap and easy technology?

A few months ago we did a simple piece of research. We looked at the Twitter following of 40 UK think tanks and also at their individual staff, fellows and associates (comprising nearly 1,400 people in total). We used our blog to ‘crowd check’ the accuracy of our results by publishing the findings in installments. This was a quick, broad-brush piece of research so we don’t want to over-claim, nonetheless it did reveal some interesting findings. It seems that many think tanks are missing an opportunity to use social media more effectively to drive their objectives.

The total Twitter community around think tanks is actually quite small. Only nine organisations have more than 10,000 followers in total for their staff, associates and fellows. In contrast, in lieu of resources and established media profile, a group of newer think tanks are exploiting social media more effectively – for example the Sports Think Tank (2,412 followers with three staff) and British Futures (8,583 followers with three staff). (This research has subsequently been updated and extended by the European Parliament Information Office in the United Kingdom).

Less than 40 per cent of people have a Twitter account that we could link to their think tank work. The majority of think tankers make relatively limited use of Twitter, suggesting that think tanks are neglecting a cheap and easy way to communicate. Of these, more than 70 per cent have less than 500 followers, and 40 per cent have less than 100 followers. No women appear in the top 10 individual tweeters and only seven appear in the top 50, which may also say something about the ‘glass ceiling’ in think tanks. As might be expected, there’s also a generational dimension, with an emerging group of younger think tankers who are making a name for themselves using social media.

So how can think tanks make better use of social media? Forget Lady Gaga – think tanks can learn a lot from other organisations whose mission is to engage in policy. The ‘Global Go To Think Tanks Report’ from the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania rates only two UK-based policy organisations in the top 10 in terms of how they use the internet and social media – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. What are organisations like these and others doing that we can learn from?

In the style of a Twitter headline, here are our ‘5 top tips for think tanks using social media’:

1: Share ideas rather than own them

Who likes being hectored? Top tweeters engage in open discussion about their ideas – that’s why it’s called ‘social’ media. Yes these organisations have a point of view, but they also engage in a conversation. What this reflects is a broader cultural change in how we engage with the internet – more of us want to be producers of content, not just passive consumers of content produced by others. For the ‘business’ we’re in, this offers the possibility of using social media for an ongoing open dialogue between ‘producers’ and ‘consumers’ of research, across all phases of the research cycle. If you think it’s a battle of ideas, you risk sounding like a loser.

2: Promote others not yourself

Social media is about discovery – of people, organisations and ideas. People follow others when they help them discover other interesting people, ideas, facts and sources. We’re not interested in being told over and over what we already know you think – we’re interested in how you arrived at that place and what you’ve come across that you find interesting, provocative and challenging. You become seen as an ‘expert’ not in what you know so much as in what you hear about before anyone else does. From a research point of view, this also opens up possibilities for collaboration, connecting people who otherwise may never have met and secondly means that you stay abreast of the latest developments in your field.

3: It’s personal, not a press release

Individual tweeters are often more important than think tanks’ corporate feeds – and so individuals are critical to extending the reach and impact of organisations. Social media isn’t a centralised communications function – it isn’t about compressing your one-time press releases into 140 characters – it’s about expressing personality in under 140 characters again and again. Our observation is that most think tanks aren’t supporting their staff to be spokespeople in social media – and this is the critical respect in which think tanks are missing a massive opportunity.

4: Co-opt people in a mission

A lot of commentators assume that we’ve entered an era of passive disaffection and cynicism. We prefer to think that lots of people are waiting for something to believe in. Let’s give it to them. That’s what organisations like Amnesty International do – go look at their Twitter feed. It’s a conversation but also an invitation to action. Every think tank advocates for something – even if it’s just more research into their area of interest – why not invite others to advocate with you? Because social media offers the opportunity for think tanks to engage with a wide audience at virtually zero cost, it also poses the question of who think tanks think they are talking to – policymakers, the public, the press? It’s not clear that many think tanks have decided who.

5: Think without limits

Traditional media is about scarcity and exclusivity – there are only so many stories in today’s papers. Social media is unlimited and democratic – there is effectively no limit to going viral. Charities, think tanks, government could all usefully consider what we can learn from the Spartacus report from earlier this year, where a tiny band of disabled activists took the social media world by storm by organising, researching and promoting their own report against welfare cuts online.

Let’s also think more creatively. Compared to many other businesses and charities, think tanks have only just begun to consider how they can create resources that people would want to share with each other through social networks – such as pictures, video, infographics. As a result, think tanks are failing to reach out to broader audiences, particularly to engage the wider public in topical debates as a means of promoting their ideas and arguments – a missed opportunity for organizations many of which operate on a rather hand-to-mouth basis in terms of finances, and which often seek to influence public opinion as well as government policy.

Our new venture, Guerilla Policy, is an experiment – we want to explore what a think tank looks like for a social media age. Our hunch is that it’s open, transparent, collaborative, democratic and participative – and genuinely social. In the spirit of social media, let’s see what happens.


Do we need a manifesto for public and practitioner involvement in social policy?

This project – Guerilla Policy – is about developing a movement of people and organisations who use and provide public services, working together to create better social policy. Do we need to write a manifesto?

Our project is based on the critique that much social policy is made by people who have little or no direct experience of the public services and issues that policy relates to – and that this direct experience matters. We’ve put forward ten reasons why we think social policy would be better if it was developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services – that they have the necessary expertise, experience and insight that good policy development requires. Guerilla is a movement that we hope will serve to bring these people and organisations together in order to create better social policy.

It might sound somewhat portentous, but movements often start with and coalesce around manifestos. Most obviously, we think of political and social movements when we hear ‘manifesto’, but there could also be useful analogies in the manifestos developed by the proponents of open and free software. Here are some examples that in various ways could serve as inspirations for our own manifesto – we’d welcome your own suggestions for other examples, and indeed your views on whether we need a manifesto at all.

  • The GNU Manifesto was written by Richard Stallman in 1985 at the beginning of the GNU free software project, and it became a key document in the free software movement. (‘Free software‘ is where the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software). The Manifesto put forward the reasons and aims of the project, why free software was so important and how it would benefit users, rebutted the objections to free software, and set out how programmers could support the project.
  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar is the book of essays first published online in 1997 by ‘hacker philosopher’ Eric S. Raymond on the impact of open source software on technology and indeed the wider world.  The title comes from Raymond’s analogy for two fundamentally different ways of developing free software: the ‘cathedral’ model in which source code is available with each software release but the code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers; and the ‘bazaar model in which the code is developed over the internet in full view of the public. Raymond argues that the latter approach is better – the more widely available the source code is for public testing, scrutiny and experimentation, the more rapidly all software bugs will be discovered. Raymond’s evangelism helped to persuade Netscape to release their browser as open source software and promoted Linus Torvalds and the Linux project.
  • Out of Netscape came the Mozilla project. ‘Mozilla’ is the everyday name for the free and open source software project founded in 1998 to create a next-generation range of software for the internet, most famously the Firefox browser and Thunderbird email application. The organization was formally registered as a non-profit organization in 2003 as the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla’s Manifesto sets out the organisation’s principles which it believes are critical for the internet to continue to benefit the public good as well generate commercial activity – the project uses a community-based approach to create world-class open source software and to develop new types of collaborative activities.

Even if you’re not interested in software or in technology generally, these manifestos are worth reading for the revolution in thinking and practice that they represent, and which continues to affect our lives everyday. And of course they also echo and have inspired much of our thinking in this project on how we can collaborate in order to improve social policy.

So, do we need a manifesto? We’ll be discussing this – and exchanging ideas about what this manifesto could include – on our new site. If you haven’t already, register by clicking on the link on the top right, create your profile, and go into the group ‘Developing a Guerilla Manifesto’. We’ll see you there.