Yesterday was filled with the sound of silence.

That is, of course, complete hyperbole. Web traffic continued, blogs were updated, tweets were twittered, and it’s even possible that out in the real world people chatted in pubs.  But in this small corner of the world, the loudest noise was a host of voices declaring silence. That’s because of the conventions governing the conduct of general elections in the UK, and specifically the long-established principle that civil servants do nothing in their official capacity to contribute to or influence the political debate, and indeed should take considerable care that that is not even an inadvertent consequence of their activity.

There is nothing to apologise for in that.  It doesn’t mean that civil servants will be sitting around with their feet up for the next four weeks:  the business of government goes on – as, formally, does the government itself. It signifies, on the contrary, one of the core values and strengths of the civil service, that by being non-political, it is always ready to serve the government of the day to the best of its collective ability even when – perhaps especially when – the nature of the government changes.  In one sense, it is these few weeks which are the justification for our public service taking the form which it does.

When a general election is announced, the Cabinet Office publishes guidance on the conduct of civil servants during the election period.  The general form – and much of the content – of that guidance has remained essentially unchanged for many years.  It sets out over fifty or so pages the consequences of the principles which I have attempted to describe in the previous two paragraphs.  One section of the guidance covers communication activities, and opens with the statement that:

The general principle governing communication activities during a General Election is to do everything possible to avoid competition with Parliamentary candidates for the attention of the public. In addition, it has always been recognised that special care must be taken during the course of an Election since material produced with complete impartiality which would be accepted as objective in ordinary times, may excite criticism during an election period when feelings are running high.

Taking those two sentences together, the simplest response is to stay silent, and that is largely what has happened in the past.  Announcements are not made. Press releases are not released.  Issues are not commented on.  Questions are not answered, except in the barest factual terms. That is also what is going to happen this time, but with a critical difference:  the range of ways of being silent has increased dramatically even since the last election in 2005.  In fact two things have changed, not one.  The supply of material has gone up dramatically with the growth of social media – but so too has the capacity to capture and transmit that supply, for exactly the same reason. Competing for the attention of the public is still a real and very proper concern, but the nature of the risk is not what it was in past elections.

The 2005 guidance specifically dealt with government websites.  The 2010 guidance extends that to various forms of social media.  Most of it is the simple extension of the general principles: sites should not be updated, attention should not be drawn to them, and thus there should be no new blog posts, no official participation in social network sites, and no twittering beyond the simple factual material which would be acceptable in other channels.

The Director of Digital Engagement very properly set the tone with his tweet this morning. Other official channels made similar statements – the clearest and most informative I have seen came from the UK ambassador to the USA, Nigel Sheinwald:

For Britain’s civil and diplomatic services, the beginning of the general election campaign also means the start of a period we call “Purdah” (an Indian word meaning separation or seclusion). As an apolitical public service, set up to work for any government regardless of its political affiliation, we are especially careful during an election campaign not to do or say anything publicly that could be misconstrued as taking sides or helping any party in any way. So during Purdah, whilst essential business will continue – including for example UK participation in next week’s Nuclear Security Summit – most of the British Government’s public facing activity will be scaled back in order to ensure an uninterrupted focus on the election campaign. For the Embassy here in Washington DC, this means that we will suspend our usual media briefings and stop our blogging until the polls close on election day.

So far, so straightforward and expected.  What’s really interesting though, is what is going on in the blurred space between civil servants as officials and civil servants as people. That’s a problem which simply has not existed before.  Civil servants have always had lives, opinions and hobbies, of course.  Some have even been politically active at local level (including, for more junior officials, as elected councillors).  But those lives have been clearly separate from their official lives, and it is the fading of that distinction which leaves some interesting ambiguity.

Many have decided that in their personal social media presences, they should observe the election silence.  That is an entirely honourable and respectable approach, but I am not convinced it is a wholly necessary one.  Clearly there are limits, and Andrew Lewin expresssed them rather neatly in saying:

I’ll chance posting motorsport race reports over in the companion blog. Even general elections can’t impede the march of Formula 1 Grands Prix after all! But as for this general blog, well – at least I got my thoughts on the new Dr Who posted here before the curtain came down for the interval.

As Andrew notes, the debate was kicked off back in February by Steph Gray in characteristically thoughtful mode:

Personally and pragmatically, I’m not sure any rules will be enough to keep individuals truly safe given the nature and norms of media coverage of bloggers and tweeters currently. Pretty much any personal comment on a public service, a media figure or government initiative or public reply to a politician or even a colleague is going to be susceptible to selective reporting out of context or misattribution as an official or professional view. Sad but, I think, true. Safer simply to go mute.

responded at the time with the view that

I don’t overall think that bloggers such as Steph should have too much to worry about if they stick to their normal normal subject matter and professional standards. ‘Official’ blogs, such as those produced by FCO and DFID are another matter: as part of formal government communications activity, they will have to stop.

I still think that’s right in principle, though it’s much too early to tell whether Steph’s greater caution will prove to be right in practice.  I share Simon Dickson’s view that

Whilst there’s a requirement to limit ‘civil servants’ participation  in a professional capacity in social networks’, I don’t necessarily read that as the draconian ban it might have been. So whilst the government online community’s unanimous decision to go quiet is perfectly understandable, and unquestionably the safest thing to do, I’m not sure the guidance actually demands it.

My professional values include an absolute commitment to support the government, in continuity and in change and as part of that accepting and respecting the election guidance. I will be more careful about what I choose to write about over the coming weeks. That is as it should be. It may turn out that as a result I write nothing. But it may not.

Comments on this post are, as ever, open. But perhaps for a few weeks they will be empty.

Babel image made available under creative commons by Nick Webb

Comments

  1. Two things:

    1. There is a blurry line too for those who are not civil servants but work for government, like me.

    2. I chose to go silent on my blog and Twitter stream mainly because I had put so much practical work off ‘until purdah’ that I actually don’t have time to even worry about writing a blog post, let alone do the damn thing. Also because I am gutless, really. I do tend to write about my work on the blog, each post has to be cleared by press office, and I don’t really want to write about anything else!

    There is also the nature of departments to consider, some will be more sensitive than others; indeed some managers will be more sensitive.

    The guidance absolutely does not demand digital silence from the public sector in a personal capacity, although it was hotly debated, but I think Steph is right: it’s safer.

    I am still pretty active on Facebook behind the privacy settings, as are quite a few if my blogging/tweeting now silent colleagues, where I am more thoughtful of what I post – mainly because my Mum and daughter are watching! – I am not tweeting but I still read Twitter as much as I did before and with my blog? Well, I don’t feel guilty about not updating it for four weeks!

  2. There shouldn’t be any blurry lines as the guidance states: . This principle also applies to non-civil servants working in Departments

    1. I don’t think Emma is in any doubt of that: the blurry line is the one which applies to all of us, between different personas and roles and between what is said through more official channels and what is said through less official channels. Care and caution are clearly right and necessary; what that means in practice is still a slightly grey area.

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