The bloggers of government are an impressive bunch. So much so, that it’s easy to overlook just how skewed a sample of the population they still represent. I have been thinking a bit recently about who does – and who doesn’t – blog from government, and have come up with five categories:
- People whose job it is There is a vibrant online community among those whose job is to make the government a place of vibrant online communities. Examples include Jeremy Gould, until his recent tactical (we hope) retreat to Ireland, Neil Williams and Steph Gray. It is perhaps a mark of continuing uncertainty about the rules of the game that while Steph says where he works on the home page of his blog, both Neil and Jeremy are more circumspect on their blogs, though each links to a LinkedIn profile which is more explicit. This is, of course, a community which extends well beyond government itself, but the focus of this post is insiders.
- People who are public figures Government has always had people who represent it in public – they are called politicians. It’s not surprising that many politicians are actively online, but for MPs that’s overwhelmingly in their constituency roles. Ministers as ministers are fairly little in evidence, and even Tom Watson is overwhelmingly online as himself and as an MP, rather than being visible through anything coming from the Cabinet Office, with his Twitter bio being very clear on priorities: ‘Labour MP aspiring to be a good dad and respected geek. Cabinet Office Minister too.’ David Miliband is almost the opposite, with a Foreign Office powered blog and a constituency site which is as smart as it is impersonal. Even a department such as DIUS, with a longer list of interactive features than most has its ministers communicating online only through the medium of their speeches.
- People who represent their organisations These are people who blog for and from their organisations, but are not in roles which would normally have had a visible profile in old media. The clearest examples I can think of are the Foreign Office and DFID bloggers, an approach not replicated elsewhere in government, as far as I am aware. It’s interesting, at the risk of over-interpreting, that the FCO list of bloggers is now dominated by ambassadors, with more junior staff a much less prominent part of the mix than at the beginning. The new Digital Engagement blog offers the hope of being a strong voice in this category, but after only three posts and not much substance, it’s rather too early to tell.
- Front line storytellers Probably the biggest and most disparate category of all, though it’s not a group I can claim to know well. Most of those I have come across seem to be written under pseudonyms, though for some the veneer has thinned or rubbed off altogether.
- Everybody else
Everybody else is the group I am interested in.
Unlike categories 1 to 3, there is a vast number of potential bloggers. Unlike category 4, there is an almost undetectably small number of blogs. I came across the Local Government Officer just a few days ago, but while I was expecting the list to be short, I wasn’t expecting it to get stuck quite so quickly when trying to think what might go on it. Where are the blogs of the policy makers, the operational managers, the chief executives, the tax inspectors, the social researchers, the whole army of people who make up public services? One obvious reason why there aren’t very many bloggers is that there aren’t very many blog readers. The blogosphere is so very large that it’s easy to overlook how very small it is. I don’t think most of the people I work with read blogs, so it’s not surprising that they don’t write them. That’s partly because I inhabit a working environment which is about as inconducive as it could be to a modern online existence but it’s partly because people have other ways of spending their lives, odd though that might seem to the people likely to be reading this. It’s hard for me to tell how significant the working environment point is: I simply have no experience of working anywhere where that is even beginning to be a natural way of doing things internally, still less externally.
That matters because, as Steph Gray said in commenting on my post on Tower 09, ‘there’s a stronger chance of effecting change in public services with the audience in that room than with the inspiring and enthusiastic debate I have with people through social media’. And even the audience in the Tower 09 room is a small skewed fraction of the range of voices and activity across government and the wider public sector more generally.
I am not advocating a complete free for all here. I have made clear before that public sector bloggers (and, indeed, employed bloggers generally) must understand and respect the constraints within which they operate. But those constraints are neither absolute nor static, and there is much which could be done to make government more visible and better understood – to itself, as well as to the people we serve.
In the meantime, who else is out there who belongs in category 5?
Update 13 September 2010: This post is over a year old, so the names are out of date, though they remain good examples of their different categories. Comments are also closed for older posts and can’t easily be reopened for a single post – so I have had added a new post where thoughts on this approach and on who else is in category 5 would be very welcome.