Civil servants should be assessed for social media skills, not just TV and radio

I welcome any change that tasks more civil servants to speak publicly about their work, whether they’re being asked to account for something that’s happened, or explain a policy.

Civil servants can bring a greater level of credibility to Government communications than Ministers. For example, economists, chief scientists and medical officers are better able to explain complex issues to discerning audiences.

Social media continues to offer senior public figures great opportunities to communicate – and there are many who do this well, including Lynne Owens at the National Crime Agency.

So it seems strange that the UK Home Office is choosing to determine the suitability of senior candidates based on their potential performance on TV and radio, but not their confidence to communicate online.

In all likelihood the senior civil service candidates the Home Office are recruiting will find themselves under scrutiny on TV or radio, defending something. This much is acknowledged in their tender for ‘media’ assessments. But Home Office staff will also be under scrutiny online, in the places where people discuss the headlines they’re reading, where they speculate, ask additional questions and seek advice from other sources.

The web will also be the first place that new problems and criticisms are first raised, and also where voices of support and alternative views might be found.

So why focus on TV and radio interviews?

TV and radio communications isn’t really working out loud.

TV and radio can’t provide the same speed of response.

To harness TV and radio relies on lots and lots of experience, training and confidence, as well as all the opportunities in the first place.

TV and radio can’t even guarantee reach, that hoary old metric, which sounds great on paper but delivers so little.

Good online communication skills can provide all of the above, and more. Discussion. Engagement. A conversation, if you will.

So why focus on TV and radio interviews?


TM as PM in AMA – why not?

New PM, new opportunities.

Cameron was a PM who normalised social media simply by turning up with some channels, and using them (or at least, signing off their use), and in doing so seemed to understand the importance of networks and communities online.

However, there’s nothing novel about this in 2016, so it’ll be interesting to see what Theresa May does online. She certainly understands the impact it can have. As far as I can tell she’s never openly dismissed social media, or belittled its role.

Does it really matter whether or not she tweets? I don’t think so. In fact it might be more helpful for everyone (apart from the media) if she chose not to.

Seriously, why not be the first leader to abandon twitter?

This could be a great opportunity for our most senior politician to make a break for it, and focus on the needs of specific audiences. Dare I say it: of the web, not just on it.

I’d like to see Theresa May help answer my questions about Europe, immigration, the economy, transport and so on, by:

  • Participating in an AMA on Reddit, and more web Q&As, generally
  • Knuckle down on policy making processes, ensuring consultations are easy to read and respond to online, and as representative as they can be
  • Use more video to explain the really complex issues, and not leave it to the press
  • Insist on regular, granular blogging from the new Brexit team
  • Demonstrate that Government is listening online generally, and not just hanging on headlines and comment from media and big business
  • Also, we don’t know much about our new PM, personally. A little bit of human insight on Instagram perhaps, wouldn’t go amiss

Wish list? Maybe. But far more meaningful, and useful, than ghost-written twitter accounts.

A tick box approach to Prime Ministerial social media won’t do in 2016.

Running scared of the web

I hope this:

and this:

don’t provide an excuse for people to do less, or nothing, on social media.

Large organisations have plenty enough reasons not to ask for input from their audiences, or to be fearful of opening up their channels to public comment.

It’s too easy to believe that the web is full of trolls (and count anyone with negative feedback as a troll), or that no-one is capable of sharing a sensible idea.

Give people a structure, a set of choices, and target your audience online – rather than just tweeting the world – and the web can still be powerful and constructive.


10 questions every Government comms leader should be asking themselves

A modern communications team, capability, leadership and, of course, digital. All important strands, among others, in the latest improvement program for the Government Communication Service (GCS).

If GCS is to continue learning and improving, those leaders who are not already hands-on with digital need to quickly adapt, and those who are already of the internet need to make sure valuable (sometimes tough) lessons are being learned.

We often find ourselves asking senior teams to take a long, hard look at their own understanding of digital. These are the ten questions we are asking communications leaders in departments and agencies, to ask of themselves:

1. Do I use digital regularly as part of my work, beyond reading Twitter?

2. Have I personally asked Ministers/CEOs/organisation heads if they would like to see online coverage included in media reports?

3. Do I receive clear evaluation of digital communications activity, showing what has and has not worked, and how this has contributed to communications objectives?

4. Do I understand enough about how our audiences access and share information online?

5. How will I help the organisation get beyond broadcast every day, and be part of the conversation online?

6. Are all the people who I manage clear on the digital competencies identified within GCS?

7. Who are those people in my team who naturally use digital as part of their work?

8. Am I regularly signposting the social media guidance for civil servants to my team?

9. How often do I encourage my team to experiment with digital, and share their experiences and evaluation with GCS?

10. Does my team blog publicly about how they have applied digital in their campaigns, successfully or otherwise?

If it takes more than a few seconds to answer any of these, then there is plenty of mileage left to properly embed digital – and it falls to everyone, including the leaders.

Leaving the Civil Service

I’m leaving Business, Innovation and Skills in July, to join Helpful Technology. I’m sad to be leaving government, but excited about my new job working alongside Steph Gray and his very clever colleagues.

The past five years working in the Civil Service have been amazing. I have learnt an awful lot about digital, management and getting things done in the public sector. But I have also missed the imperatives that came with working for a small business.

I am hoping to capture the best of both worlds, by delivering exciting things like the Social Simulator, Digital Gym and brilliant intranets, to public and private organisations.

The world of digital in Government was very different, even as recently as 2009. The arrival of GDS and soon after I started was a relief for someone like me, who doesn’t know their HTML from their Linux (just don’t tell my new team). Government digital was a really welcoming community back then, and continues to be so today. I’ll miss not being on the inside of that community, but I suspect there’s plenty of room for people who are a tiny bit more patient than I.

Personal highlights from my time in the Civil Service include:

And what wasn’t so good?

  • I learnt the hard way that I was definitely not cut out for private office.
  • My web chat for Andy Burnham on Mumsnet was a baptism of fire.
  • I only wrote five papers in my whole time in the civil service. The rest of my work is on this blog or this one. I probably should have written more papers.
  • Pushing through things like hot desking, new skills and spending less time worrying about hashtags, was, I think, the right thing to do in the long run. But in hindsight I probably made a lot of people’s lives quite difficult for a while, and I don’t feel great about it.

So, plenty of experience to take with me to my next adventure and lots of new friends made.

My current role is being advertised, and the deadline is 11 June. Let me know if you have any questions about it (and sorry about the hot desking).