Friday, 8 June 2012

This time it's personal

The recent publication of social media guidelines by the Cabinet Office has prompted a discussion on our internal Yammer network. There are mixed views as to how practical the guidelines actually are, particularly when dealing with the old personal/professional chestnut. One colleague has questioned whether paragraph 7 essentially requires "that we are civil servants 24 hours a day and that we cannot comment to anyone on any controversial issues at all".

This post is effectively my contribution to the discussion - it got a bit long for Yammer. And, anyway, I've been trying to blog about this particular topic for a while...

I jumped on the old social media bandwagon fairly early doors. There was no social media policy for civil servants when I started blogging. Or when I joined Twitter. What I did have, and still have, is the Civil Service Code (pdf). And my some several many years experience of working in a very prescriptive environment.

And yes, very soon after joining the civil service, I was sat down by a big scary boss man and indeed told that I 'was a civil servant 24 hours a day'. That didn't mean that I couldn't have a social life. But it did mean that anything naughty I got up to out of work could reflect badly on the civil service if I was caught getting up to it. 

Prescription comes with the territory. The Civil Service Management Code (doc) - which sets out our conditions of service - is 90+ pages for goodness sake! I've never really had a problem with that. If I had, I'd have left long ago.

Social media hasn't changed any of that. What has changed, is that it's more difficult to keep the different parts of your life separate online. If you veer away from the code in a online environment, you're more likely to get caught doing it. Engaging in political debate online - even if it's with friends on Facebook - is not the same as having a good old rammy over a pint or two in the pub. Comments you make in an online environment are rather more permanent and open to being re-purposed, re-published and/or taken out of context. And keeping separate personal and professional accounts accounts is no guarantee of safety. Determined people can (and have) made connections between accounts and anonymous users have found themselves named.

We shouldn't have any expectancy of real privacy online - that's not how the internet works. And right now, the reality is, the media is interested in the 'off-piste' activities of public servants. I'm not saying I like it, or agree with it, but I've accepted that that's the way it is.

So, yes, I am 'always on' and very conscious of who I work for when using social media. I avoid politics. I think twice before I post. I would certainly never use social media while under the influence of anything stronger than a cappuccino. 

But I don't really mind the blurry lines. My status as a professional librarian and a civil servant go some way to defining me as a person (although not the whole way I should point out!). I do take work home (mentally and physically) and that's OK, mostly. A wise woman once tweeted to me "work is so much a part of who we are". And I think it was Mark Twain who said "work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions". But then, I'm lucky enough to have an interesting job that I'm pretty passionate about. Not everyone has one of those. And I can certainly understand why people want to switch off completely when they leave the office. 

And I don't use social media for purely personal purposes - and have no desire to do so. I'm not on Facebook. I prefer other ways of communicating with friends and family. I don't have interests out of work that I want to blog or tweet about.

It's also important to point out that I don't work in a sensitive policy area. I have the sort of job that allows me to talk in fairly abstract terms about what I do. My blogging and tweeting is generally confined to professional issues.

But what of my colleagues who are still trying to work out the rules of engagement? What of those who are active on social media in a purely personal capacity? What of those who don't want the lines between their personal and professional lives blurring?

Well, yes, the guidelines will reassure some. And we have some Scottish Government guidelines on the way that may help further clarify some of the grey areas. Support from senior management will help. It's a bit step that the Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake appears to have wholeheartedly embraced social media. A supportive environment will help - and that will come as more of us use social media without the world coming to an end. But some of my colleagues will remain unsure of the boundaries and will, quite understandably, decide that it's safer just to give social media a wide berth.

As I've alluded to above, my use of social media is affected by many factors - including my personal circumstances. Indeed, something happened to me recently that made me completely reappraise my use of social media. It was a blip, but I was actually on the verge of deleting my Twitter account.

So we can have all the guidelines and policies and training courses in the world. The nature of social media is such that there will be many factors that will influence the way people use (or don't use) social media. And that's something those of us responsible for writing the guidance, developing and delivering the training and generally evangelising about social media would do well to remember.

1 comment:

marlyb said...

I really enjoyed yoru post Leslie. I think our use is quite similar in the sense that we're neither of us on Twitter for the personal side of it. I loved your point about how many are still unsure of the boundary between personal & private - that's something that we keep meeting.

It's also worth remembering that different people have different motivations for their work. Yes, all civil servants are "always on" in the sense that they're always subject to the civil service code - but they may have many commitments outside of work which mean that they just can't devote the time to build up that professional networks outside of work. Or don't even want to. It'll be interesting to see how their needs are catered for in a world where engaging through social media becomes more normal.