Is this the end of public sector tweeting as we know it?
As those who follow us on Twitter (@welovelocalgov by the way) will know, recently we came across what we think is some pretty bad news. A fellow tweeter, @NakedCServant, has apparently been digitally hunted down over the course of seven months by a specialist security expert brought in by the DCLG, and has now been suspended pending an internal investigation and disciplinary hearing. You can read more about it at the LocalGov website.
None of us at WLLG know or knew @NakedCServant, but we obviously feel a certain kinship with them. They were writing as an anonymous voice from within government, saying many of the things others were thinking and offering an insiders perspective of what was going on. Yes, he may have occasionally wandered over the line a little and said a couple of things that they wouldn’t say in a public meeting, but no state secrets were revealed, no one was hurt and no money was made. What’s more, he did all of this from his own i-phone, so can’t even be accused of using government IT resources for personal use. They did however break their code of conduct, and now face at best an uncertain future and at worst an unmasking and a brief fifteen minutes of notoriety.
This raises some serious questions regarding the way all of us who comment on government – central or local – might potentially make use of social media and share our opinions.
In a related case, last year saw the highly publicised attacks on @baskers, who had the temerity to exhibit a human, well rounded life alongside her official work persona. The details of these two cases are somewhat different, but both highlight the huge gaps between the understanding of users of social media and those who are empowered to enforce the rules and codes of conduct. The natural, default reaction to any criticism or issues appears to be to cut things off at the source, remove the voice of criticism and smother the issue. Perhaps not the real way to make use of modern communication technology and the incredible opportunities such technology presents.
That being said, whilst there is a long way to go before the powers-that-are feel more at home with the brave new world of communication and engagement, those of us forging ground also need to take a bit of a look at what we are doing. One of the standard barriers to allowing more public servants to use social media tools is the fear that they will say something inappropriate, release secrets or do something which will bring their employers into disrepute. Despite the fact that we are trusted to write letters and e-mails, deliver presentations and speeches and hold meetings small and large without ruining things, social media seems to inspire fear that we will perform as badly as an England footballer from 12 yards.
However, some of us feel that we don’t need to worry about any of this. The view is that by adding “views are my own” to the bottom of their Twitter bio this somehow absolves them of this responsibility, that by saying “this is what I really think, and even though I work for an organisation and represent them in every other way I’m not in some way doing so here” will hold any water whatsoever. Simply put, we should not be saying things that we would not happily say to others to their face and with our names attached should the circumstances be appropriate.
Professional disagreements and differences of opinions with employers are one thing, and I don’t want to see any person gagged or prevented from telling the truth. Officers need to feel able to talk honestly about their work, discussing just about every facet of it and questioning it with a view to making it better through public examination and discourse. Equally, I want people to realise that words have consequences; in one Twitter user’s case pretty darn serious ones.
So with that in mind, this is a WLLG plea to those who tweet, blog, share, comment or present their thoughts and theories to the world: take care. We’re not saying don’t hit that send or submit button, but just be sure that whatever you say is something that you would be proud to say.
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