Civil Servants and Social Media

Civil servants in The Netherlands are encouraged to actively participate in present day social media. Rules and Regulations online do not differ from those offline. In case of doubt they are to consult their colleagues or boss.

This summarises a recent draft opinion of the Dutch Council of Government Communication Officers (GCCO). From a body like this, it is a surprisingly liberal position, for allowing active online engagement means losing control. Nevetheless it is rightly argued that exploring knowledge, ideas and experience from outside provides a rich source of information for government policy. Moreover adapting to views and sentiments in civil society is necessary to arrive at policies that will be accepted.

The CGCO opinion formulates 7 reasons to engage as well as 4 guidelines to be taken into account. The 7 reasons for engagement are in brief: direct contact with stakeholders, reaching new interest groups, discovering emerging trends, improving creativity, intervention by feeding in official information, creating support by explanation of policy and using the wisdom of the crowds.

The 4 guidlines to be taken into account are in summary the following. First, as a government representative you are supposed to behave like a civil servant should (being impartial, trustworthy, careful). Second, existing rights and obligations apply, so the freedom of speech allows criticism, but is limited in case you disagree on topics close to your own field of competence. When engaging, civil servants should stick to the civil service code of conduct. Third, make a distinction between private and public (personal views and official policy), even though this is not easy. No prior consent is needed. However, in case of conflict the minister decides. Fourth is awareness and preparation, which means a deliberate choice whether or not to engage, taking people serious and archiving posts.

Both the reasons to participate and the constraints are not new, but together they present a strong case for active participation. Drafted for the national level, the guidelines can also apply to other levels of government. Much is left to the discretion of individuals and organisations. So lets explore one example.

Twitter and Burgerlink
One of the social media which merits special attention is Twitter. The advantages are clear (fast, concise, widespread communication), but at the same time nobody knows yet what the risks are. That’s why Burgerlink advocates a consensus approach. This means that the persons involved agree upon a set of principles and promise to give one anothter feedback. These principles are:

A. Twitter is one channel amongst others (i.e. press release, website, blog, RSS, LinkedIn, etc.) so make a deliberate choice which channel or combination to use

B. Make a diference bewteen an organizational and a personal account, and make sure which one you use

C. Tweets can fall within one of four domains (the boundaries between which are not strict):
– person (family, hobby): everthing allowed what a person himself or herself feels fit, but beware of the consequences;
– function (work): tweet about your own work, not that of colleagues;
– department (colleagues): when mentioning namens or describing situations, make sure to know how others feel about that;
– organization: corporate identity is the sum of all individual identities, but management has a special reponsibility to guard the outcome

Quoted in: FutureGovNet

Dutch version published in: Digitaal Bestuur