Monday 11 February 2013

Forgive me, for I have sinned

It's been 2 weeks since I have blogged.

Flippant, perhaps?

Built to Spill the Beans
But it's an issue and I think it's time for some honesty. The following is entirely the fault of Anne McCrossan and Chris Watson, but even I have to admit that it's been a long time coming and it's purely coincidental that two conversations from different angles collided within such a short period of time.

I'd like to think that I don't shy away from difficult subjects on this blog. Read back and there's some pretty honest stuff buried in there. And then I became a Civil Servant. And suddenly it wasn't so easy any more.

My name is Louise, I used to be considered, I think, a 'social media expert' in government circles and I am scared.

I've been too scared to tweet. Too scared to retweet. Too scared to comment and too scared to blog.

Every single time I've sat down to write a blog post, I've ended up writing a paragraph and then exiting the post, leaving it in draft to sit and fester, never to see the light of day. My Twitter presence has dwindled to occasional retweets and banal comments on my working life - the safe bits, in other words. The boring bits. The bits that couldn't possibly be misconstrued.

Take last Thursday for example. I was at an open data event at Imperial College as part of Teacamp which is an event which is not government affiliated nor officially run. It's an event run and managed by Jane O'Loughlin, requires a lot of hard work to keep going and while she is a Civil Servant, and it's run mostly for Civil Servants, it's also open to others as well. Someone from the open data community commented about circumventing private sector data storage such as Nectar Card information by asking people to voluntarily contribute the data themselves to a central gathering point.

I tweeted, in 140 about this, contributing my own little bit of observation to the #teacamp hashtag.

A day later, an old friend said it was an irresponsible attitude for government to take. My heart sank, and I immediately replied back that I had been at a non-government event, had merely been relaying someone else's idea who was not a Civil Servant and this was absolutely not government policy or attitude or opinion or anything else besides.

It's all about context. I've only got 140 to play with. If you read the rest of the #teacamp tag from last Thursday then you'd understand it was actually unlikely that that comment would have been uttered by a Civil Servant (we were in the minority at the event, I think it's fair to say). But that friend didn't and so took my comment out of context and so misinterpreted the comment.

Was it his fault for taking it out of context? Or mine for assuming a hashtag was enough context?

It scares me. It's hard. I am not going to lie - every single time I tweet these days I question what I am tweeting and whether it's breaking the Civil Service Code, the rules which I, as a Civil Servant, must abide by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Add to this that I am in a politically restricted post, and be impartial takes on another dimension above that laid out in the Code itself. Then there's the fact that people who may hold my future career in my hands may read what I say, that journalists do too  (some, in fact most, because I used to write and now don't and they simply haven't unfollowed me, but nevertheless are very there), that our Executive Director too follows me, and the weight that weighs every time I press tweet is not inconsiderable.
Sign 2
And the absolute worst thing? I was the very first person in line, not so long ago, telling people how damn easy all this was, that it was just communication, that it's not scary, just get on with it, the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Well, here's the thing. They do. They really do. I connect people on a weekly basis who can and do help each other. I do it inside government via email as much as I do visibly on Twitter. If someone wants a hand with something, if I don't know the answer, I'll know someone who does. There is nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with maintaining reputation as a trusted source by pointing people at interesting articles and blog posts. There is nothing wrong in taking responsibility for my own learning, and sharing that learning with others who may benefit. There is nothing wrong, even, with talking to MP's or other Civil Servants on Twitter. What would be wrong would be allowing anyone to think they knew my political partiality (which I don't have, and never have had, as I've repeatedly mentioned in this blog) by the volume or sway of the signposting or retweets or conversations.

So it comes down to this.

Yes I should think before I tweet and before I post, in the same way I should consider responses to emails or questions face to face. Yes I should make a conscious effort not to break the Code that I am bound by. But I think that what it comes down to, for me, is that if I can justify my actions, they don't break the Code and, as happened last week, I can explain clearly and quickly if someone has incorrectly taken something out of context, I'm covered.
Man in the bowler hat, entrance, Mayflower Park Hotel, celebrating 84 years, Seattle, Washington, USA
Because on the flip side of this, there is a 'thing' around people getting to see that Civil Servants are normal people. Just normal people. We read MIT review, Forbes, Boing Boing and El Reg. We disagree with some things that happen in the world, we find science fascinating, we watch in awe as David Attenborough shows us yet more of the wonders of the world, and we get stuck in snow related transport failures. Just like everyone else. We are not faceless, we are not boring, we don't wear bowler hats (well, most of us) and we have opinions.

But we also have rules and legislation which ensures you can't know some of those opinions. Never discuss religion, sex or politics, my father used to say. Words to live by, say I.


  1. You have my sympathies. It's a leadership thing for your management to give you the confidence to continue to publish online.

    When a civil servant in a politically sensitive post I did years of community action in kings cross in the evenings and my spare time, working with other local people to help turn around a tricky neighbourhood. I did this in a non-partisan way. And then set up a community website that campaigned on local issues in 2006. And remained non-partisan, but pro the area.

    This local public exposure caused raised eyebrows amongst colleagues whose job it was to have raising eyebrows. In the end Jeremy Heywood said plainly that although being a civil servant did stop me taking office in a local political party it didn't stop me being a citizen. I took comfort from that and got on with it.

  2. Ah. I'd question 'leadership thing' when a Director who shall remain nameless speaks of fear too, and his leader, the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake also tweets. And blogs. I think it's normal to find this a bit scary. It requires pause. Pause to think, pause to assess, pause to sanity check, and I believe it to be right to do so. The Code is legislated for a reason. But it's also practice. Busyness can lead to getting out of practice, and like anything, the less you do something, the more concentration required in order to do that something effectively.

    Thank you, lots, for sharing the comment from Jeremy Heywood. It's very, very helpful. I am guilty of forgetting I am a citizen and that's a much needed timely reminder that I am, it's okay to be, and that there is nothing wrong with wanting to make things better, genuinely, and indeed lends to authenticity which is important too.

  3. Louise - this topic of conversation is extremely apropos as was being discussed with my colleagues today. I'm at the point where I feel I can't even use my real name in the comments here to discuss it. I've looked for but failed to find your email address. What's the best way to drop you a line that isn't public (i.e. not on Twitter)? Thanks.

  4. Hiya, nab me via louisedotkidneyatdigitaldotcabinethyphenofficedotgovdotuk

  5. Hi Louise,

    Firstly, kudos to you for pushing boundaries. I think it's important to make a cold-headed business case for that, because in a stagnant economy growth is an important objective right? ...and if the web is to be the growth opportunity it has the potential to be, then we have to look at the as yet untravelled elements of its potential.

    And social business is human business, it is essentially made up of a web of people, and so creating growth opportunities takes a level of personal courage. That is going to be so for as long as people generally see an advantage in being, and acting, like something beyond automatons.

    The industrial age was all about conformity. The connected, digital age is going to be about almost exactly the opposite - finding value in new ways of doing things, discerning possibilities and potential out of random events.

    In the connection economy, value will emerge and scale the more we enable and allow sustainability to develop out of diversity, and the more therefore we can all hold opposable points of view.

    You have graduated to a ninja level of sorts by showing people how to contemplate and express the idea of authentic and personal communication that has the power to move people through social media in a professional capacity - no small task! But very few people have been given the skills to think about how to develop and synthesise personal and professional reputations as one. This is now what's needed as part of the next level.

    The persona has dominated in the industrial age at the expense of creating communication that actually makes an impact on people. In a world of information overload, broadcast no longer cuts it though - it takes the remarkable and the different and people forging interesting and valuable paths in which they are leading. This is a new type of leadership skill, just as the Guttenberg press led us to have to learn to read and write, so social media means we have to lead in new ways.

    Codes of Practice are great as guidance but not so useful if they're the means of stifling reasonable and rational discourse. It's this discourse, and real engagement, that will be invaluable to the future prosperity of a connected society.

    I would argue that people need to be given the means to stand up for who they are, and importantly, who they want to be, if we are to propel ourselves towards that. And in that context the work you're doing is vital and important.