The news that Whitehall is to import 100 ‘digital natives’, and make digital skills a part of promotion criteria, is a welcome recognition that public servants need to be skilled in digital communication technologies. But it throws up some questions too.
Is Whitehall ready for the norms of openness and authenticity that prevail in social media? The immediacy and intimacy of Twitter for example demands that public services depart from the formal and prolonged responses to feedback that prevailed in the past. As this article from Civil Servant magazine points out, organisations don’t tweet, people do. The personal nature of Twitter doesn’t naturally fit with an organisational culture in which a comms office has to check everyone’s public statements.
In our research on 21st Century public servants we have primarily interviewed people working in local government rather than Whitehall, but many of the same issues are present. Public service workers are aware of the importance of social media but struggling to reconcile it with other aspects of their work.
Some of the things our interviewees have said include:
You have to be careful with Twitter. It’s difficult to draw the line between personal and professional life. I tend to retweet things but without a value statement attached. We are in politically restricted posts so we have to be careful.
It’s a small proportion of the council who are active on Twitter, maybe 5 percent.
Twitter and Facebook are about publishing what you do in your life. But huge parts of my life are in the public arena and I want to keep part of it private.
Social media also raises questions about who is the authentic voice of the organisation: is it the elected politicans or the officers/civil servants? Some chief executives of local authorities that we spoke to were wary of using Twitter or blogs for fear of appearing to upstage the elected Leader who ought to speak on behalf of the Council. The convention of ministerial responsibility in Whitehall has similarly led to civil servants retaining their anonymity in the past. Where should the political/administrative boundaries be set in a land inhabited by digital natives?