Social media: the tiger the senior Civil Servant must ride

The exclusive thoughts of Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom, permanent Secretary at Large and Her Majesty’s Government’s Data Sharing Czar.

Social media, one of my staff observed, is the tiger we in the Civil Service must ride. Otherwise we will be eaten by it.

My recently arrived colleague Bob Kerslake is the latest to mount the beast, breaking with tradition, following my own example and taking to Twitter.

This was not a course of action that would have suited his predecessor. For all his strengths, Gus had a fatal predilection for US-derived management speak. Even had he wished to “Tweet” (and he never once suggested to me that he did) the task of compressing his most mundane observations into 140 characters would be beyond the nation’s finest sub-editors.

Bob is a breath of fresh air. Well coached, as he has been, I am sure he will take happily to this new medium.

Given my own pioneering record in bringing new media to the heart of Whitehall, I have been asked by our Press Office to sketch in some background about social media and the senior civil servant for this publication.

I must say it is rather odd to be asked to write for a weekly trade newspaper which is, as it were, not a newspaper at all. As I speak I imagine my words coming to you directly through the ether, via the keyboard of my secretary Patricia and through a network of wires to your screen.

So what is the role and value of social media - Web Logs, online media, Twitter and so forth - to the Senior Civil Servant?

The answer lies in one word: Transparency.

No-one is more committed to Transparency than I. Transparency plays a central role in my work as Her Majesty’s Data Sharing Czar.

But you need to understand the various meanings that we in the Civil Service ascribe to Transparency. You might naively think of a sort of open book, of maps and expenditure statistics now freely available in the public library.

I would suggest different analogies.

Imagine you are at a train station. All seems well; you are feeling perhaps a little complacent. The firm voice of authority reminds you via loudspeaker about the state of readiness and alert. Thus we maintain Transparency about the terror threat.

Imagine you are returning home to Heathrow from a business trip, or a family holiday in Puglia. As you pass through Customs, you walk through a brightly lit corridor, empty apart from a few tables.

My staff sit in a darkened room behind mirrored glass, observing you minutely. In this way Transparency helps us keep the country safe from illegal drugs.

Moreover, it is Transparency that will kickstart Britain’s growth agenda. We shall achieve this by selling government’s valuable data assets - including individual-level health, education and welfare records - to encourage the growth of Britain’s “big data” industry. I’m pleased to say this programme enjoys the full support of the Prime Minister. I may return to this in a future column.

My point is that Social Media supports each of these forms of Transparency. They are an excellent way to bring Transparency into communications with one’s staff and the nation.

They are also cheap, which is not unhelpful in these vexed times of budgetary constraint.

If one has tens or hundreds of thousands of direct reports, sending them a memo is costly and time-consuming. I would need several Wembleys to talk to my own junior and middle-ranking staff. Yet with e-mail, blog-casts, and with Twitter I can retransmit press releases and share my views with any number of people at the touch of a button, for free.

It’s quite remarkable.

So good luck Bob. Enjoy the beast, as I have done for some years.

Sir Bonar Neville-Kingdom is Permanent Secretary at Large and Her Majesty’s Government’s Data Sharing Czar. You can follow his regular thoughts on Twitter at @sirbonar.

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