This week I went to my first teacamp – an informal meetup for people working on digital in government. The topic was what should be in the forthcoming social media guidance for public servants.
Personal v professional
Much of the discussion hinged on the balance between public servants’ right to a personal life and their professional responsibilities to their organisation.
Now that it’s easy to use the web to work out who someone works for, the risk is that people’s opinions or indiscretions will damage the organisation or be used to criticise it.
What if a policy officer tweeted something at odds with the corporate position? The press might seize on this.
Nick Halliday, Matt Jukes and Terence Eden have also blogged on this discussion.
For me, the distinction between ‘personal’ and ‘professional’ is no longer a helpful one.
I see the web as being radically transparent, in that it not only enables more information to be published, it also helps people to make connections that they otherwise could not make.
Think of this: today you could scrape LinkedIn for a list of Twitter handles of staff at a government department. Analyze their streams and you might find opinions at odds with departmental policy.
The web will increasingly expose inconsistencies like this.
What’s actually happening is that the idea of the organisation is under attack. It was always the case that people’s personal and professional lives were inconsistent – it’s just that the web is now finally exposing this.
The personal is political
Let’s also remember that every statement, however seemingly innocuous, carries implicit value judgements and is in some sense ‘political’.
The words we use, the sources we read, the thoughts that occupy us (or not) reveal our values – and it is these values that are at the heart of political debate.
Tweeting that you enjoyed The Matrix is ‘personal’, until you realise that someone else saw it as a Christian metaphor and others as a dystopian warning about out-of-control technology. And someone else thinks you should only be watching films about their pet issue anyway.
There is no statement which does not carry implicit values (and in fact making no statements also expresses values).
Freedom of expression
The world is going to have to live with the idea that organisations’ opinions and those of their staff are not the same. Hopefully the novelty of this will soon fade.
So what to do with those social media guidelines?
In my opinion they should make an explicit attempt to protect public servants’ freedom of expression – a fundamental human right.
The greatest risk here is not that organisations will be embarrassed by the contradiction between their statements and those of their employees (that will happen anyway) but that public servants feel they cannot use social media to engage in political debates or even express themselves in a ‘personal’ way.
Public servants make up about 20% of the workforce and they’re going to be using social media more and more. A protection for freedom of expression is needed to make sure they do not become disenfranchised.