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?

 

Learning

The second time that I turned back to face inland, the cliffs suddenly seemed a lot larger than before, yet the tide was sucking me back out to sea. Hangover instantly dissipated, I realised that although I liked to go for a swim in the sea now and again, I didn’t actually know what I was doing.

And I’d recently signed up to a triathlon.

Since that over-confident dip off the Dorset coast, I’ve started swimming regularly. Only after five weeks have I realised that my breathing is holding me back. And my breathing is bad because, essentially, I’m nervous.

I’m nervous because I’m rushing home to get to the pool before it closes. I’m nervous because there are some very slick swimmers alongside me. I’m nervous because I thought I was supposed to hold my breath under water, and I don’t like doing that.

Turns out my confidence is low, and my technique totally and utterly wrong.

But with a bit of support, swimming each week, watching other people’s technique (discreetly, for fear of looking wierd), practising things I’ve picked up online, and most important of all, setting some simple goals, I’m beginning to feel more confident and my technique is improving.

I’m making a few mistakes as I go along, like the occasional mouth full of water, but help is never far away.

It feels good to build confidence in something that I’ve been avoiding for a long time. As a result I hope I can bring a bit more empathy to the people we train as part of our business.

My own experience with swimming, and conversations with the people on our Digital Action Plans, make me think there are a basic set of ingredients to building skills and confidence:

1. Making a weekly habit (of whatever you are trying to improve)
2. Setting short-term, achievable goals
3. Having a long-term need, or target
4. Practising technique, with some knowledgable support

Right now I’m still splashing about; out of breath, but in a fairly safe environment, and swimming a little further each week.