Are there any useful purdah guidelines for social media, asks Matt Jukes, prompted by my post last week on civil servants and social media in the pre-election period. What a good question.

To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t yet any guidelines at all. But guidance on general elections tends to change incrementally rather than radically, so we could do worse than check what was said last time. It should be easily found, because I captured the link in a post at the time:

When a general election is announced, the Cabinet Office publishes guidance on the conduct of civil servants during the election period.

It turned out to be not easily found at all, but in reading what follows it’s important to remember that the problems I encountered are the result of the state of the government web presence in 2010 and of the decisions made then about how to manage and archive material in response to the change of government. This time round, in the world of gov.uk, the problem is a very different one, as is the approach to solving it – the gov.uk team roadmap has an entire workstream on election preparation.

Armed with that original link, the guidance should be close at hand. Sadly, it isn’t.

This item has been archived

That’s not wholly unexpected since although the guidance is a perfect example of a non-partisan government document, it was nevertheless published under the previous administration. So let’s look in the web archive.

Page/Document not found

That works perfectly, other than arriving at another page not found screen – but at least it’s an archived page not found screen from about the right date. But there are still clues worth pursuing, some helpful, others misleading. The most prominent date on the page is 28 April 2010, which is before the election and so before you would expect this page to have been archived. But the National Archive banner at the top of the page declares this to be a snapshot of its state on 10 November 2010 (though the url includes the string ‘20130128101412’ which implies something else again) which is comfortably after the election. So let’s follow the next invitation to check for the archive copy.

Guidance notes to civil servants on their role and conduct

Now it looks as if we are getting somewhere, with links to the document we want in an enticing range of format flavours. Let’s keep things simple and open the PDF

This item has been archived (again)

Although the page looks identical to the one we had three steps ago, the underlying link is of course different. So it’s probably worth following the web archive link again.

This page cannot be found

Or perhaps not. And perhaps not surprisingly, since this time the red banner tells us we have arrived on 4 July 2013. Though that date is itself a slight surprise, since two steps back we had been at 11 May 2010.

But the red banner also invites us to find a more auspicious date. So let’s try that.

UK Government Web Archive

There are lots to choose from, but of those on offer, 7 April 2010 is by far the most promising.

Step 7

And indeed we have arrived at what is apparently the Cabinet Office home page with the publication of the guidance as the main – indeed the only – story.  Following the offered link delivers both the desired page and a sense of foreboding.

Guidance notes to civil servants on their role and conduct (again)

The reason for the foreboding is obvious. We have seen this page before, several steps ago. But while it may be obvious, it is also misplaced. This time the links work and the guidance is finally to hand.

General Election Guidance 2010

The reason why this works when the previous attempt didn’t is that although the two guidance notes landing pages look identical, the archiving process has treated them very differently. The link to the PDF first time round went to:
http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/354815/2010electionguidance.pdf
while the version which works links to:
http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100407162256/http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/354815/2010electionguidance.pdf

In other words, in some circumstances, the archived version attempts to link to the live site (and in this case to a live site which isn’t live at all), which it’s not very surprising isn’t very helpful.

Meanwhile, of course, poor Matt is still waiting for an answer to his question. I wrote about the guidance and its implications at the time, but more formally, social media is covered as part of a section on digital channels, starting on page 28. The basic approach is pretty straightforward:1

Civil servants’ participation in a professional capacity in social networks (e.g. (Facebook, Bebo, LinkedIn etc.) as well as in forums, online communities and other public online discussions should be limited during the Election period to:

  • commenting on operational matters relating to services such as notifying users of technical problems with a website or digital service
  • responding to factual queries by signposting existing content.

Guidance on ‘ministerial blogs’ is essentially similar – there shouldn’t be any new ones or any new posts on existing ones, but ‘Civil Servants may continue to respond to comments on existing blog posts to provide routine and factual responses to queries and to moderate for inappropriate comments.’

Finally, on Twitter, the guidance is indirect.

Use of Twitter may continue for publishing factual information only in line with guidance on news media

That guidance essentially boils down to being minimal, factual and avoiding any appearance of political content.

What’s interesting about all that is that it written on the implicit assumption that blogs were ministerial and that communications is done by specialists. It’s actually not hard to work back from the examples presented to some more general principles and in turn to apply those principles to other situations, but it will be interesting to see how the imminent updated guidance covers all this.

It is at least not hard to do that for activity through official channels. Quasi non-official activity through unofficially managed channels is altogether less clear – which is precisely the issue discussed in my previous post.

 

  1. I have corrected here what seems to be a mistake in formatting in the original.

Comments

  1. That’s incredibly frustrating. I remember writing whole chunks of this policy specifically aimed at providing specific guidance for civil servants in the digital space. Well done for persevering.

    It really shouldn’t be necessary to have to start again. Back in the day of course, COI would have been the first port of call for policy on communications during the election period. Oh wait….

  2. Although cheating slightly in the selection of keywords, I tried a web search on:

    “general election guidance” filetype:pdf

    filetype: filters can be really handy. Also site: limits. So eg a web search on:

    general election social media guidance 2010 filetype:pdf site:gov.uk

    1. Thanks – good point, that is undoubtedly a more elegant approach. I wasn’t intending to imply that mine was the most efficient way of finding the document, only that what I did should have worked but didn’t, or at least didn’t work as straightforwardly as one might reasonably wish.

    1. That’s as I would expect and is consistent with the approach at the last few elections. Fixed term parliaments create the possibility (though not the necessity) of publishing the guidance slightly in advance of its coming into effect – but this post isn’t really about looking for guidance; it’s much more about the challenge of preserving access to archived content.

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