The civil service have been issued with new social media guidelines, governing the appropriate use of services such as Facebook and Twitter. Introduced by Cabinet Office minister Frances Maude and head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake, they go into great depth describing both how individuals should use them, personally and professionally, and how the civil service's IT infrastructure needs to be updated in order to accommodate these services.
There is no doubt that digital tools are integral to public service provision in the 21st century. People expect to be able to communicate instantly online with public service providers. It should also help the civil service to monitor feedback of what they are doing. People talk online all the time about the service they have received, whether it is benefits, libraries or that they've been a victim of a crime. With that in mind, it's quite right that the guidelines include the use of conversation monitoring tools such as Addictomatic and Netvibes.
Perhaps the best element in the guidelines is the comment is "how social media and the internet are used should, therefore, form part of the organisation's business strategy (or at least its communication strategy) rather than be set out in a separate social media strategy." Embedding social into departments is absolutely critical if it is going to be successful. It can't be seen as an add on, but as a key part of how an department conducts its business.
For all the good in these documents though, there are still staggering amounts of bureaucracy at present within Whitehall, which is stopping truly effective use of digital tools. Social media should be cutting through it but isn't (or can't).
Critically there are key technical barriers to getting the civil service fully engaged online. The document contains the frankly staggering revelation that many departments still use Internet Explorer 6 as their browser (the current version is version 9). This means that "legacy services" can still be accessed, but it actually prevents use of modern new media services.
A quote from the guidelines sums this all up perfectly:
"Use common sense and if you are unsure about a particular post don't do it and seek advice from your line manager, departmental head of digital or HR team."
Fair enough you might think. You can't have lowish grade civil servants putting things into the public domain that could be sensitive or inaccurate. However, having a chain of command for a tweet or replying to a Facebook comment hardly makes for spontaneous digital engagement.
As with so many industries, the civil service is having to completely rethink how it responds and deals with disruption caused by new media. These guidelines have the right idea at heart, but it will take a significant culture change within Whitehall to see them implemented effectively.