#TeaCamp - Social Media Guidance for Civil Servants


On Thursday, I attended my first TeaCamp. It's a mini-meetup for UK Gov folk doing interesting digital things.

These are some random jotterings based on the discussions both at the event and at BeerCamp afterwards. All conversations were under Chatham House Rules.

Social Media is a problem for all organisations - whether public or private. Rightly or wrongly, the "public" see an organisation as having a single mind and a single focus. Anything which gives the impression of a lack of unit cohesion is extremely troublesome.

But troublesome for who exactly? Part of the issue with social media is its novelty - especially among the press. There's a belief (particularly prevalent in the gutter press) that because it happens "on the Internet" that it's somehow new and exciting and - therefore - relevant.

Would a civil servant writing a letter to the paper about a topic be as "controversial" as them tweeting about it?

Would an essay at university be as newsworthy as a blog post?

We all have a digital footprint which is trivially easy for anyone to discover.

So should we try to remain anonymous? Or, at the very least, keep our personal and work lives separate.

Even if we take steps to hide our tracks, it's pretty easy to triangulate a person. FourSquare checkins with a careless friend, geotagged twitpics, who your follow, who follows you - if you can identify sexual preference from Facebook, why not who you work for and what your political agenda is?

There are, to me, three main points of contention.

  1. Should employees have personal opinions which conflict with their organization's?
  2. Can an employee express those opinions publicly?
  3. What should an organisation do in response to a problematic social media interaction?

It seems obvious to me that even the most politically-restricted civil servant has opinions. But I see the sense in keeping them as private as possible.

The privacy question is an interesting one - simply because people don't yet really understand what "private" means in the context of social media. Ranting about your boss over a pint - the words just vanish into the wind. Mostly because you don't expect people to have tape recorders running continuously.

But online? I think I've locked down my Facebook settings pretty well - but I'm still paranoid that my kvetching will leak into my "real" life.

The final one is the killer. Even the most responsible employee is going to run into a problem - either through an innocent misunderstanding, or a deliberate corruption of the position by a malicious external presence.

The key is a good HR team who will back the employee's right to a private life, and ensure that they are not castigated for expressing their opinions.

All the guidelines in the world won't stop people from making mistakes. No policy can stop a newspaper twisting every word you say.

What's equally needed is policies for how the workplace treats mistakes - and for the world to calm down a little.

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