Social media and democracy – Part 2 (in light of civilserfgate)

Resistance is futile, I was really trying not to say anything about all of the media reports on the civil serf blogger, and the news in the Timesonline today that Sir Gus O’Donnell (aka Sir GO’D) is about to (finally) release the guidelines for civil servants on engaging in the social media space. However, the charming Simon McManus linked to my social media and democracy post, was himself linked to from the Guardian and so I thought it would be churlish not to say anything.

I will not repeat my misgivings about how social media will affect democracy in countries where autocracy rules, you can read that on the other post :) but I will have a little muse about it in the context of civil servants, living in a democracy, under the auspices of the civil service code.

Aside: our civil service is highly respected, and the civil service code of conduct is key to this – I fundamentally believe that it should not be written off or ignored. Nor is it complicated, you can view it in all formats here: http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/iam/codes/cscode/index.asp

There are some misconceptions in the Press about who exactly civil servants work for. Here is a good definition of a civil servant, for those not wanting to leave my prose the explanation is as follows:

Civil Servants are those who are employed by the Crown, excluding those employed by the Monarch herself. The Civil Service therefore excludes those who are employed by Parliament and those employed by other public bodies.

It may remain confusing, but basically, civil servants are employed by the Crown, the Crown’s executive powers are exercised by government, therefore, civil servants must do as they are told by the governing party – but they remain loyal to the Crown as their ultimate employer. (This explains why a rather brilliantly painted picture of the royal family en flagrante on the balcony of Buckingham Palace was refused in horror by a colleague in HMRC!)

So, to our very own Belle du Jour – the civil serf. She is a civil servant, therefore is required to do the bidding of the Labour Government Ministers, whilst remaining in the employ of the Crown. She will have signed up to the Civil Service code and therefore will be required to stick to the rules of the game. On reflection, (OK printing and scribbling) I believe that the following bits of the civil service code are salient here:

The code is broken down into four simple sections: integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality, so taking these areas and looking at what they require, I am just going to highlight those guidelines that should have given any blogging civil servant pause for thought…

Integrity

You must always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom you have dealings

You must not misuse your official position, for example by using information acquired in the course of your official duties to further your private interest or those of others (NB I am intrigued by what the last four words imply)

You must not disclose official information without authority. This duty continues to apply after you leave the Civil Service

Honesty

You must set out the facts and relevant issues truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible

You must not deceive or knowingly mislead Ministers, Parliament or others

Political impartiality

You must serve the government, whatever its political persuasion, to the best of your ability in a way which maintains political impartiality and is in line with the requirements of the Code, no matter what your own political beliefs are

You must act in a way which deserves and retains the confidences of Ministers, while at the same time ensuring that you will be able to establish the same relationship with those whom you may be required to serve in some future Government

My take on it all

As with any mediation, we need to remain true to the facts… however entertaining it has been to read the riotous posts about what it is like in whichever department this lass works for, what damage is it doing to her colleagues? Employers? People working for her? Citizens of this country? Has she broken a contract that she signed up to when taking on her job in the civil service?

My position is that she had a right to write down her thoughts, but she went too far.

I am far more reassured by the only other blogging civil servant I know – Jeremy Gould – I hope that he is still able to talk about his thoughts and experiences, in his own way. I may unduly promote his blog, but with reason – it is all the things we want from the civil serf without the sensationalism.

Update 11th March: Yikes, thank you David Briggs for having the grace not to point out that you too are a blogging civil servant! I shall unduly promote your blog forthwith! Oops and Paul Canning… I am not doing well here am I?

I should make a public curtsey to Tom Watson MP who is not a civil servant, rather a rather precocious politician – however, he does seem to have some empathy with what we are trying to achieve. Many bloggers have spoken about him today far better than I can… go read: up-to-date bloggers on Google

11 responses

  1. I think Serfgate is easier to manage…

    Servants of the crown are servants of the people. They have traditional and statutory responsibilities that are supposed to protect them from being used for the political advantage of the party in power…

    Civil Serf was not, at any stage, required to do the bidding of the powers that be.. (although he/she broke the rules on disclosure)

    This would be where the civil service code of conduct starts to get confusing….

  2. Pingback: Public servants must blog, despite Civil Serf | DavePress

  3. jkerrstevens – Justin, hate to argue with you in public, but actually the following statement:

    Servants of the crown are servants of the people. They have traditional and statutory responsibilities that are supposed to protect them from being used for the political advantage of the party in power…

    Is simply not true

    ref the civil service code

  4. Pingback: Civil serf: part of the problem? |

  5. Em,

    You’re right. Perhaps saying she wasn’t required to do the bidding of the powers that be is a stretch too far.

    My earlier comment was in relation to section 14 of the code.

    14. You must not:

    •act in a way that is determined by party political considerations, or use official resources for party political purposes; or

    •allow your personal political views to determine any advice you give or your actions.

    My primary point is that the code is ambigous in places and could be considered open to interpretation in some areas. I think this debate, and those on other blogs, reflects this.

  6. Pingback: How to Blog about your employer: let me count the ways: Civil Serf | The Wardman Wire

  7. Pingback: Wikinomics » Blog Archive » Blogging government.

  8. Pingback: Mission Creep | Neil Williams » Blog Archive » How to be an interesting civil service blogger (and not get fired)

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