Blogging and the civil service

I’m thinking about what you’d have to include in a code for civil service bloggers. In the last half an hour I’ve come up with a list of 12 points, though this isn’t exhaustive. Any ideas?

1. Write as yourself
2. Own your own content
3. Be nice
4. Keep secrets
5. No anonymous comments
6. Remember the civil service code
7. Got a problem? Talk to your boss
8. Stop it if we say so
9. Be the authority in your specialist field – provide worthwhile information
10. Think about consequences
11. Media interest? Tell your boss
12. Correct your own mistakes

UPDATE: A clunky old blog is not the place for ministerial edicts. It is place to start discussions and seek views. So you stick up a post to stimulate a discussion about what a civil service blogging code should look like – on a blog – and it gets translated by the Press Association into “Civil servants who write blogs must be nice or face being silenced”. Oh dear. This is classic new vs. old territory.

58 thoughts on “Blogging and the civil service”

  1. 11. Be accurate – don’t tell porkies.
    12. Treat comments as part of your blog. Make sure they adhere to the guidelines s much as possible.

    I number it 11 because number 5 is a bit pointless. Are they expected to check the identity of commenters?

    And “8. Stop if we say so”. Who is we? Surely if they adhere to the rest of the guidelines then there is no reason to tell them to stop.

  2. 13. Consider your audience ie don’t make it too cliquey & explain all mysterious civil service acronyms and activities.

    14. If the audience is your partner & your Mum 3 months down the line find a better use of your time.

    15. Inform your line manager you are blogging. This covers you and your line manager and means we can do less monitoring.

  3. ‘8. Stop it if we say so’

    Tom, does this mean take down the blog immediately a la ‘Civil Serf’, or just stop blogging?

    Perhaps also an equivalent code of practice for blogging ministers?

  4. I didn’t get the chance to read the civil serf blog, but surely one of the major forces driving bloggers is to expose the truth. No more, no less.
    With that in mind, point 8 is particularly disturbing. It should be obvious that any information potentially causing a threat to national security cannot and should not be revealed, but that given, the idea of blogging is to show a wider audience the real situation. If all is as it should be within government there should be no need to make such pronouncements as ‘stop when we say so’, if all is not as it should be, well, then it’s doubly important that bloggers are revealing that and thus, hopefully eliciting positive change.

    Bendy Girl

  5. This is a pretty good list for starters, but probably needs explanatory notes to accompany each item. I’m working on a public sector client project at the moment where we are starting lots of social media activities, one of the most imporant of which is creating an environment where employees will write their own set of guidelines. We haven’t decided yet if this will be as a wiki or as a ‘blog-like’ site. The rationale is that if people have been involved in creating the rules then they are more likely to enforce them, and it will become self-policing as employees encourage each other to stick to the rules, because they are fair and if one person doesn’t then everyone will suffer.

  6. I’m local government, here’s my take:

    I have never written about my workplace and here’s a few reasons why not:
    1. I actually have some real power which self-publishing gives me because they couldn’t respond, except by sacking me, which could be turned into martyrdom (I’m sure, once named, Civil Serf will perform that role for the government’s opponents). It’s a one way ‘dialogue’ in which they would be muffled. Unfair and not helpful.
    2. The nature of blogging means that if I started I’d be very likely to say something I’d later regret
    3. I don’t want someone to have the ability to censor me and that’s the most obvious way in which I’d start censoring myself.
    4. Much of what I’d want to talk about are issues, which I don’t need my workplace for to source examples to illustrate.

  7. Some thoughts:

    First, I really like the idea of it being a really short list of really short guidelines. So much more likely to be useful!

    Second, can you explain what 2 a bit more please?

    Next, I don’t think you can really expect people to do 6 effectively when it is a pre-Internet-era document – it actually doesn’t help people feel confident, instead it seeds uncertainty that your guidelines here need to clear up. We addressed this in this recommendation in Power of Information:

    http://www.commentonthis.com/powerofinformation/#marker10585

    9 is brilliant and exactly the point – civil servants do know more about their chosen area than nearly anyone else, and it’s of obvious public value to have them be able to explain stuff in plain english for Google to find.

    Lastly, 8 needs re-wording to make it clear you’re not against free speech. “If your boss(es) makes it clear that what you’re writing is needlessly damaging, say sorry, take it down and move on. If you need to whistleblow about something really serious like criminal activity, use the official channels.”

  8. Could you clarify – is this for people in the civil service blogging “officially”, or just people who are employed in the civil service who have blogs? If the former, this seems good; if the latter, as the comments seem to assume, then a couple seem a bit odd – if it’s my personal blog, why should I have to be worthwhile if I don’t want to be, or stop if I’m not breaking the other guidelines? 🙂 The BBC guidelines look good.

  9. Tom – 2 is essentialy the disclaimer. “The views on this blog are my own and not my employers” etc 8. Yes. That’s exactly what I mean.

  10. You’ve missed the most obvious thing –
    What protections are offered to bloggers as a result of this?

    A cast-iron guarantee that anyone who stops you blogging within the rules will be fired should be the minimum. I do mean fired; dismissed; released from labour. It is a gross infringement of freedom of speech to stop someone from blogging by threatening their job. I’m guessing you won’t go for that, but there should be protection for bloggers and penalties for people who restrict blogs if you’re going to have this code.

    Although I think this is covered under ‘4’, it might be worth specifying that it includes ‘client confidentiality’, including commercial confidences and private individual’s confidences. I know that’s in the civil service code, but it should be spelt out if for no other reason that to increase public awareness of the service’s integrity.

    Is this a voluntary code, or will it be an addendum to the civil service code?

    ‘2’ is problematic; if someone chooses to release it under a creative commons license, questions of ownership become somewhat vexed. It also makes ‘8’ impossible; if I release something under a creative commons license, the genie is out of the bottle in a legal as well as a practical sense.

    ‘5’ is unworkable. You can’t check everyone. Even if everyone in the UK has an ID card, people outside the UK will want to comment.

    ‘8’ is, on a point of principle, wrong. It will also lead to people blogging anonymously and out of reach of the code. It implies that a politician, particularly a minister, who is embarrassed by a civil servant’s blog, can have it shut down with no appeal or review, even if the comment is ‘that Bromwich MP fell over walking home from the pub’.

    ‘8’ is also not specific enough. Does that mean ‘take down a given post’ or ‘take down all your posts’ or ‘never blog again’?

    Wrt ‘8 ‘ but also the other points, who decides when a contravention has occurred?

    Does this apply to everyone in the civil service who blogs, or just civil servants who blog about the civil service? Equally, within ‘bloggers who blog about the civil service’, what happens if (say) I want to write about my workplace as a form of catharsis? Can someone at (say) JobCentrePlus say that the office smells bad?

    You need to come up with examples of how this would work in practice. Could, for instance, a civil servant use publicly-available knowledge or information to talk about workings of the state in a novel manner that anyone could have done but would be unlikely to without that civil servant’s understanding.

    I have to say that I have a sneaking regard for Lobster Blogster’s comments. The eleventh commandment is, of course, ‘thou shalt not be found out’.

    Plaudits to you, Tom, for taking this one on. I think you’re going, more or less, along the right lines.

  11. Re your update, you might want to put a disclaimer on your blog:

    ‘The opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily represent the opinions of any person or organisation to which I am connected. It is not necessarily a statement of ministerial policy or intent and should not be taken as such.’

  12. First rule should be: those civil servants who actually blog or participate online should co-create the blogging guidelines.

    Another one – if you make a mistake say so, and apologise. Don’t try and hide or remove but explain.

    I wrote about this after the last civil servant blogging “scandal” (http://whitehallwebby.wordpress.com/2007/05/20/why-civil-servants-need-to-be-careful-about-blogging/) and my main point then was “Don’t forget who pays your wages.”

  13. I’m reminded of the Bevan’s alleged quote about securing the Doctor’s acceptance of the NHS, “(he) stuffed their mouths with gold”.

    Civil servants are subject to the Official Secrets Act and so on, in exchange for which loss of freedom of expression they receive gold-plated pensions. Case (and mouth) closed.

  14. * Be Nice.

    * Stop if we say so.

    Sounds very Orwellian.

    Who will police this?

    Who will decide what’s nice?

    Very disappointing Tom, I’d expect better.

    What happened to honesty and transparency?

    Gazza

  15. Tom,

    I think it is a mistake to put this into numbered specifics.

    The Civil Service Code is based on values, not practices – and says everything that needs to be said, from the duty of not disclosing official info without permission through to acting professionally.

    What it needs is a one line memo from the Minister:

    “You may write about your work, but must do so in accordance with the Civil Service Code, the computer use guidelines, and local policy.”

  16. One might add:

    – “it’s your responsibility to ensure there’s nothing actionable or libellous”.
    – Clarify points of fact but dont discuss the pros and cons of policy
    – Please dont use it an alternative to raising internal issues through normal management channels

    The IdealGov rule is “it’s fine to gripe as long as you offer a Wibbi” (wouldnt it be better if…)

    William

    PS – I started to explore the idea of a code in Jan 07 but didn’t conclude
    http://www.idealgovernment.com/index.php/blog/comments/gis_dgis_and_civil_service_blogging_policy/

    …and I did a spoof one here
    http://www.idealgovernment.com/index.php/blog/comments/what_should_the_civil_service_blogging_code_be/

  17. AS a civil servant blogger who chooses to be pseudonymous, a thought on point 1.

    I write as myself, I just don’t use my name. That’s partly because we don’t yet have the climate of openness which would make it entirely safe not to. But it’s also partly as a deliberate way of having a public voice which can be different from the voice of a civil servant always representing the official position.

    More on all that here:
    http://strategytalk.typepad.com/public_strategy/2008/03/serfdom-and-fre.html

    I suspect that by and large the bloggers are mature enough to be sensible. But we work in an environment where most senior decision makers have little or no exposure to social media of any kind and whose reactions and decisions will therefore inevitably be based on the assumptions and approaches of the old media world. That is not a wholly comfortable place to be – so the code needs to a compact of shared interests, not just a set of rules going only in one direction.

    And I am not precious about pseudonymity. If asked, I generally tell – and telling my boss from the outset felt like a self-evidently sensible thing to do, in both our interests.

  18. Item one, surely, should be a reminder that blogging is a form of publication and as such carries numerous responsibilities under English (and Scottish) law. From then, it’s all common sense – your ‘ownership’ point, for example, would be covered by copyright law (much as we’d wish that to be reformed!).

  19. I think if you outline what to do if you need to blow the whistle on an issue, up front, that could avoid some confusion -this is currently a footnote in the code…

    We’re currently developing guidance at DIUS – happy to share the process if you would like more details. justin.kerrstevens[@]dius.gsi.gov.uk

  20. Tom Steinberg: “8 needs re-wording to make it clear you’re not against free speech”

    Yes, otherwise it’s a gift to certain pseudo-bloggers with a gift for misrepresentation and misdirection.

    Excellent points from Dave Cole, too. It wouldn’t do to have a framework that allowed bloggers to be unjustly bullied into silence, and those who try it on should be held accountable.

  21. Tom, would you mind putting up some meat on the bones of your list? It seems fairly sensible on the surface but working through the implications of the list in full I can envisage a lot of civil servants feeling they have little room to write about anything other than knitting.

  22. Re your update…
    How good it is that because you blog in the open, the press article is totally non-credible to anyone who wishes to check the source themselves… Good on you, Tom.

  23. I’m a civil servant now and I don’t think there should be different rules for different people on the www. There are already rules about conduct and confidentiality for civil servants (and other kinds of employees). Rather than extend them to an uncensored medium, if employers are worried about what might get published they should keep an eye out. Better still, stop worrying. Nobody cares. In Parliament, personal blogs were mainly read by the person at the next desk to you. And only understood by insiders; that too is the nature of blogging.

  24. Can any Civil Servant please advise me on the lawfulness of an HM Land Registry Official appearing in Court at the request of a Squatter ,in a private litigation concerning an Adverse Possession Claim.

    any advice case law etc most welcome
    kind regards pecksniff

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