Social media in Whitehall: it’s inevitable mistakes will be made

Deputy director of digital engagement at the Government Digital Service on how Whitehall needs time to grasp social media and develop its online personality

The Government Digital Service (GDS) office doesn’t have the feel you’d expect from a floor in the Cabinet Office.

With its breakout areas and mind maps plastered across the walls, it leans more towards a space in the Googleplex than a traditional Whitehall department. There is a sense that something genuinely different is being attempted here.

When it was officially launched in December 2011, the GDS’ employees were scattered across different buildings. They have since been brought together under one roof at the Cabinet Office, and are now focusing on transforming the government’s digital services.

Digital engagement is a key part of their role – and one that Emer Coleman has been tasked with.

Coleman was appointed deputy director of digital engagement at the end of last year. In her new role, she aims to help drive the government’s ‘digital by default’ agenda by improving how Whitehall engages with the public and other interested parties online.

A major plank of the process is social media, and Coleman and her staff look after the @GovUK Twitter account. It has taken a little while for her team and others to adapt to communicating in the fast paced, and sometimes unforgiving, world of social media, she tells Guardian Government Computing.

“It’s a bit like a hive mentality – after the first 20 minutes you are comfortable about what you’re answering,” she says. “It’s more about establishing a tone and feel, and being aware that people will obviously make mistakes.

“That was my big ambition in coming into the team. You know in a lot of organisations people always say, ‘It’s okay to fail’ but most people hear that as ‘I don’t think so.’ What you want is people to make small mistakes and then you can say, ‘Don’t worry about it, just do this.’ I think the key is to model behaviour around that.”

After once retweeting something that contained an expletive, Coleman found herself “rapped over the knuckles a little bit”. However, such mistakes are par for the course if the government hopes to improve the way it communicates with citizens, she believes.

“That’s a really interesting example for me to say, ‘Well what are the boundaries?’ and try to have some sort of personality around stuff and show that government can have some personality.”

The public sector is not always painted as the most social media savvy place. Coleman, however, believes that it is receptive to the idea, but some of its staff are faced with infrastructural difficulties that can sometimes hamper digital engagement, such as “old IT systems that they are struggling with, issues around security and risk and that sort of stuff”.

“I think they understand the direction of travel,” she adds, “so I don’t think it’s resistance in as much as fear to a certain degree.”

The development of social media guidelines and a consultation on the subject is now on Coleman’s agenda to see “if we can get to a consensual position on what’s sensible and what’s not”.

In her previous job, as director of digital projects at the Greater London Authority, Coleman was also charged with encouraging some reluctant sectors of the public sector into the online world, having led the launch of the London Datastore. The project drew scepticism at the time, she says, while some authorities were anxious about releasing certain datasets.

Digital engagement “has a tremendous capacity for leveraging capability in, and the Datastore was a great example of that”, she says. “We had so many developers who wanted it to happen, so I didn’t have to know everything about technology. If I had people pushing back at me, I had a 100 people I could ask who were specialists.”

Coleman’s priority is now, the single government domain created by the GDS and now in beta, which started as a developer account.

It has been a “bit niche” up until now, she says, with developers, journalists and those who work in local and central government the main groups involved in the debate about engagement so far. “It’s only now that the discussion is starting to broaden out,” she says.

Over the next year the GDS will also be looking at whether it can expand its activities on its blog, as well as pushing for more engagement around Whitehall and encouraging people to use social media and engage digitally. “That’s a huge piece of work,” she says.

“We are only just coming up to looking at full complement of the team, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they think of digital engagement and who they think we should be engaging with in this space,” Coleman adds.

In order to drive citizen engagement, she believes that Whitehall needs to work hard to change its mindset.

“We have to be prepared to work differently, it’s 24/7 communication, so I will communicate with somebody until 10pm or 11pm at night if I have to. You may not want to do that all the time, but there are occasions when you do. That’s a big change for people. You’re not going to be a nine to five in a 24/7 world.”

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