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


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