Five years ago on election day, I wrote a post about civil servants’ use of social media during general election campaigns, arguing that it was time to start thinking about the next election.

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.

Now we are approaching that next election, and I am not sure how much thinking there has been.1

The starting point is simple – or at least apparently simple. Civil servants are politically neutral. Demonstrating that neutrality is more than normally important during an election campaign. So government communications should largely fall silent once parliament has been dissolved on 30 March.2

For official uses of social media – blogs directly published by the government, twitter accounts maintained as part of somebody’s job – the result is simple. They stop.3 That pretty much covers it for civil servants who happen to be human beings, but it’s not quite so straightforward for human beings who happen to be civil servants.

There are several intertwined reasons for that, all of them more complicated now than they were in 2010, and all of them, I suspect, less complicated now than they will be in 2020.

The first is that the distinction between official and personal is getting less clear cut. Institutional accounts can close for the duration, but the position is less straightforward for accounts which are personal, but are also used for work-related activity. That creates a more blurred boundary for more people than was the case five years ago (though many were very aware of that boundary even then), but it also prompts a bigger question about the public lives of civil servants, on which more later.

The second is the distinction between current and past. There are things which it is perfectly proper to say now but which would not be appropriate during the election period. I know people who are sufficiently concerned about the risk of being quoted out of context that they are planning to delete their twitter histories. I am not convinced that that’s necessary, but twitter is mostly in the moment, so the impact would be relatively minor. For blogs, such as this one, the tradeoff is different: in many ways the archive is the blog. Much of its traffic comes from people finding older posts by who knows what circuitous routes. And even if I were to delete the whole thing tomorrow, it would live on in zombie form outside my control.

Putting those two things together suggests a compound risk, that more public statements by civil servants will retrospectively look ill-judged in the political context of a differently constituted government. If nothing else, those who seek to make mischief will have more raw material to work with.

The third distinct reason is the distinction between central and peripheral. Even five years ago, the personal visibility of most public officials was pretty limited. Back in 2009, I wrote a post about looking for people talking openly online about their work in the public sector and didn’t come up with much.4 Only a year before, it had seemed reasonable to write:

We are in a world where the technology has advanced and a few have adapted, but where most of us are still struggling to work out and apply the social norms which will govern the new world.

One part of that is in the use of social media.  Government is in a simple position here:  with some very honourable exceptions, it ignores them.

Much has changed since then.

Now there are over three thousand posts on the 74 blogs running on the blog.gov.uk platform. Blog posts have authors, and those authors constitute a much wider group than the few who used to publish under their own byline in the past. When civil servants blog for the government, that is of course exactly what they – we – are doing, but there is still an individual person and an individual voice behind them.

There are also more channels – or at least more channels being much more widely used by civil servants in relation to their work. Twitter in particular (and to a lesser extent LinkedIn) has dramatically reduced the barriers to entry. I don’t know how many civil servants there are on Twitter (I doubt that anybody does know or could know), but there are hundreds, if not thousands, who have acquired a public voice, many of them more recently than the last election.5

Those changes are recognised and reinforced by the latest civil service social media guidance, which makes the shift from tolerating to encouraging. It starts

The purpose of this guidance is to encourage and enable civil servants to use social and other digital media appropriately to enhance our work. [emphasis added]

Taking all that together amounts to some pretty big changes even in the five years of the current parliament. It seems rash to assume that change over the next five years will be less significant than change over the last five.

Nor are those changes – past or prospective – simply about quantity. Greater online visibility has deeper qualitative consequences too. Dennis Grube has recently raised the question, for example, of whether senior civil servants are being pushed into ‘promiscuous partisanship’,

the idea that civil servants are now expected to support government policy with the same fervour as if they were in fact partisans. The only difference being that they must then turn around and offer exactly the same fervour in turn to the next government when a change of government occurs.

Grube is concerned with a wider range of activities than are the subject of this post, but he clearly considers that the consequences are potentially profound:

Does it in fact matter if civil service leaders become more public figures than they have previously? I argue that the reason these changes matter is because the traditional anonymity of civil servants is linked in important ways to the impartiality of the civil service. To dispense with the former is to endanger the latter in ways that re-shape the core role of civil service leaders in a Westminster system.

That’s an interesting echo of my thought from five years ago that the idea of what it is to be a civil servant might start to change. It’s hard to judge how far or fast that change might go, but the fact that the question can be raised is a useful reminder that the social change unleashed by technical change is frequently neither obvious nor immediate – but may still be inexorable.

We’ll be back for another update in another five years. Or perhaps sooner.

  1. Though interestingly, that post got a very prompt response from Patrick Butler at the Guardian (and a journalist commenting on a civil servant’s blog post itself is a signal that things are changing) with the thought that the very idea of purdah was already under threat:

    Purdah looks less workable now, when social media – Twitter, blogs, Facebook – is so universal. It is easy enough to silence the departmental tweets. But what about the individuals-who-also-happen-to-be-public-servants, who, in their private lives use social media to comment, discuss and argue (non-impartially) on the issues of the day, including politics. When, for example, are they tweeting in their capacity as civil servants and when as private individuals? (the same question might be asked of journalists).

  2. There is also a slightly separate argument that government communications shouldn’t crowd out coverage of the candidates and the campaign. That argument is less relevant here – and, as I have argued before, doesn’t in any case carry the weight it once did in a more monolithic communications environment.
  3. At about this stage in the run up to the last election, I set out the rules and what they might, or might not, mean for civil servants who were also personally (as opposed to institutionally) active in social media. The detail of the formal rules changes from election to election, but the principles don’t, and I have no reason to think that they will be radically different this time from last. The big difference is that the timetable is formally known much further in advance. There are also new rules on non-party campaigning, but that’s not really relevant to what’s being discussed here.
  4. I was looking for blogs then, rather than, say, people talking about their work on Twitter, not least because I had only joined Twitter myself about a week earlier – but even if I had been more familiar with it, there was nothing like the breadth of expression we take for granted now. And that was little more than one parliament ago.
  5. Being human on Twitter hasn’t always been risk free for civil servants. The likelihood of attracting critical press coverage may be low, but the impact is undeniably high.

Comments

  1. Very interesting post. I’ve always wondered how much we want a wholly professionally anonymous civil service, and how much political debates might well be enhanced if those who have worked as officials and public sector managers and staff were able to get involved. If involvement was prefaced by a suitable ‘views my own’ disclaimer, I don’t see how it would be a problem.

    As a career public servant, I have always offered my views on policies and individuals to anyone who has asked (not that too many have…) I doubt for a second I have influenced one vote.

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