Cabinet Office issues social media guidance for civil servants

Guidance on use of social media for civil servants published as part of the government’s ICT strategy

Have a clear idea of your objectives in using social media, learn the rules of each social media space before engaging, and don’t open a channel of communication you can’t maintain. These are some of the top tips outlined in the government’s newly released social media guidance for civil servants.

Authored by the Government Digital Service (GDS) and the Home Office, the guidelines come just over a year after the Cabinet Office first pledged in its ICT strategy to produce “practical guidelines on departmental access to the internet and social media channels”.

Talking about the six principles that make up the guidance, Emer Coleman, deputy director of digital engagement at the GDS and one of the authors of the advice, says in a blog post on the service’s website that when using social media the government should:

• Communicate with citizens in the places they already are.

• Use social media to consult and engage.

• Use social media to be more transparent and accountable.

• Be part of the conversation with all the benefits that brings.

• Understand that government cannot do everything alone, or in isolation.

• Expect civil servants to adhere to the civil service code (online as well as offline).

In part one of the guidance, the GDS stresses the importance of using social media to add a further level of transparency and accountability to the public.

“It allows citizens to input into decisions, to question them and for replies to be broadcast to many instead of one-to-one. So the government can hear direct from those affected by its decisions – the positive and negative – and explain and/or defend its decisions in response to questions or concerns,” says the document.

The guidance adds that using social media doesn’t mean that the government should answer all the queries and questions directed to it through social media channels, and says that common sense should be applied.

Part two of the guidance, authored by the Home Office, offers advice on how departments can overcome technical barriers that are currently hindering government employees from utilising social media.

In a foreward in the guidance, Sir Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service, touches on this point and acknowledges that not all government staff can easily access social media channels at this time at work due to restrictions that may be in place or other infrastructural issues.

He adds: “Keeping abreast of new technology and new ways of communicating in a digital era are crucial to our ability to attract a new generation of talented people into the service.”

The publication of the document signals a recognition within Whitehall that social media has become an increasingly important tool for engagement with citizens and for effectively getting departments’ messages across.

With access to social media restricted in certain spaces within the government, the next task will be to overcome technical barriers and ensure that social media tools are used safely and responsibly by staff – something the NHS has found problematic at times.

Speaking to Guardian Government Computing in March, Coleman said that the time was right for the government to start developing its online personality, but acknowledged that it would take time and that a big cultural change was needed to achieve this.

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