It’s a rainy Friday evening and I’m waiting for a train. I absent-mindedly take out my phone to check Twitter. My heart stops. I’m reading about myself. A blog has been published that talks about me, hints at a conspiracy and suggests I’m behaving pretty poorly. What followed was unpleasant, with tweets and blog comments fuelling speculation, coupled with my growing anger and a feeling of powerlessness. I wasn’t prepared for this.
I had set out to run a public consultation that was truly open. I’d put in place an online platform for receiving and publishing attributable comments and was arranging a series of recorded, public roundtables to capture and share the debate. In addition to traditional comms approaches, I was using social media to raise awareness and encourage stakeholders to get involved. I was also preparing blogs about the discussions to encourage debate with communities that we don’t usually reach.
I hadn’t considered that in being open I’d be putting myself in the firing line. As a civil servant I’d had many years of being ‘an official’ but never a person – never myself. I’ve been an anonymous cog in a large machine, shielded by a corporate structures and processes.
From my experience in communications roles, I know that it is often best not to be respond defensively as it can fan the flames, so I decided not to get involved in a debate. Responding would have taken the focus away from the consultation proposals. I couldn’t risk that so I kept quiet and weathered the storm. My colleagues rallied around – they were very supportive and know that I value the codes by which we operate as civil servants. I alerted my colleagues in the press office and then dusted myself off and got on with doing what I needed to do; making sure that the consultation debate was focussed on the policy proposals and that I was reaching as many stakeholders as possible.
I admire the traditional communications processes in departments – they are fine-tuned and very efficient. They serve their departments and officials well and provide a fantastic service. But I’m uncomfortable with suggestions that social media should be managed through the same processes as press liaison and comms. That would remove policy makers from direct engagement.
Hiding behind a mask is great for shielding an official from attack but it does little to generate trust or accountability. As policy makers we need to develop our skills for managing the new landscape and the digital tools on offer but we also need a departmental culture that enables us to have a genuinely open debate with the people our policies touch.
Following the outcome of this consultation and the release of all the supporting research, the new policy has been very well received with some great write ups in the press. The process has been described as exemplary and the output as high quality. I have also had personal praise for the way in which the consultation was handled from a variety of contributors. I feel as though I have come a long way from the dark moments of that wet Friday evening but I know that there will be more challenges ahead. Being an open policy maker won’t always be comfortable but I’m convinced it will deliver better policies.