This has been my fifth election as a civil servant. In two of those elections I was in the thick of things. But this is the first in which I have felt personally constrained, with the near silence on this blog over the election period being one indicator of that.
I don’t think that has much directly to do with the rules governing civil servants in the pre-election period. As I wrote when the election was called, there was a need for greater care during the election period because of heightened sensitivities, but I didn’t altogether share the view that civil servants should, as a matter of principle remain silent.
For me, at least, something a bit more subtle has been going on. Not surprisingly, many of the people I engage with through twitter, many of the bloggers who stimulate my thoughts and ideas have fallen into two main groups: those who have been silent, and those whose primary focus has been on the election. I am in both those groups – and I suspect I am a long way from being the only one. But the reason I am not joining those online conversations is not directly because there is an election on, but because not discussing party politics or political controversy in public is part of the deal for many civil servants. Most of the time it’s very easy just to find other things to talk about. During an election campaign – particularly one with huge uncertainty about the outcome – it isn’t.
That in itself isn’t new, of course. But there is a huge practical difference between a quiet chat with friends over a drink and online conversations which are visible to the world.
The resulting silence hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed:
I am really looking forward to the Local & National Gov folk being back tweeting & blogging soon! I miss you!
— Janet E Davis (@janetedavis) May 6, 2010
And in reply to that, Sarah Lay astutely noted:
@janetedavis Or has normal purdah silence been seemingly amplified because we all talk more the rest of the time now on here etc?
— sarahlay (@sarahlay) May 6, 2010
This time round the traditional rules and the new means of expression have managed to co-exist without too much difficulty. But we are all going to be back in another few years, and another few years after that. Next time more people might be more reluctant to close down part of their lives for the duration of the election. Next time there may anyway be fewer people comfortable with the traditional constraints of civil service expression. Next time there will be a generation becoming more prominent who have a visible online identity and history from which they may not be able to separate themselves even if they want to. Next time – or perhaps the time after that – civil servants may be less invisible, less silent and less disinterested.
Alongside all of that – and potentially amplifying it further – norms of engagement and participation will continue to change in the wider society and polity. Civil servants are necessarily part of that, they cannot stand outside it.
And if that were to happen, the whole idea of what it is to be a civil servant would start to change, with implications which go far beyond a handful of blog posts. So perhaps it’s time to start thinking about the next election before the polls have closed on this one.
Update – I have added a footnote to this post in a supplementary note. We may already be closer to the new world than suggested here.