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Why I’m going dark for purdah

When the General Election is called, and government enters the pre-election phase known as purdah, I’m going to suspend my personal blogging and tweeting at least until the results are announced.

Why? In a word, it’s too risky.

This will be the first election with really active social media. Last time around, Whitehall Webby (2007) was still a glint in the virtual eye, along with Facebook (2006) and Twitter (2007). Even Guido had been going less than a year (Sept 2004) only just outdone by Tom Watson – one of Parliament’s earliest blogging MPs (2003).

Now, things are different. The political blogosphere is enormous, connected and credible. Mainstream media figures blog and tweet alongside their primary channels, and use those new sources for stories and feedback. And like millions of others, including hundreds if not thousands of British civil servants and a number of old university friends now running for Parliament, I’m blogging and blathering in a variety of other social media.

Mainstream journalists covering my Department’s issues, politicians of all parties and party workers are amongst the 1,200 people who follow me on Twitter (along with a sprinkling of some exotic young ladies from Las Vegas who seem really keen to meet me). And I simply don’t know who’s reading this, which is generally where much of the fun comes in.

But elections (and, I’ve learned, reshuffles) are different: the rules on civil service behaviour are stricter, the scrutiny is much more intense, and the knives are sharper. Frankly, in a climate of pressure on civil service headcount, it would be unwise to stray too far from the pinstriped fold during this particular period at least.

It’s likely the Cabinet Office will be issuing updated guidance this year to help people in my position to stay on the right side of the rules, so watch that space. But personally and pragmatically, I’m not sure any rules will be enough to keep individuals truly safe given the nature and norms of media coverage of bloggers and tweeters currently. Pretty much any personal comment on a public service, a media figure or government initiative or public reply to a politician or even a colleague is going to be susceptible to selective reporting out of context or misattribution as an official or professional view. Sad but, I think, true. Safer simply to go mute.

For me, it should be an enjoyable break. I suspect there’ll be plenty of work to do on the other side 🙂

36 Comments

  1. Steph, I admire what you’ve done in trying to bring more openness and connectedness into government, so don’t take this personally. And I’m very aware of the purdah rules and the risks of appearing to be partisan.

    But there’s something here that shows how utterly disconnected government is with most of real life. Real life doesn’t shut down when an election is about to be called. Bills still have to be paid, jobs (for most of us) still have to be done. Learning, communicating, getting on with stuff doesn’t stop.

    For those of us who work with government agencies, there’s a huge frustration at some of the interpretations of the ‘too risky’ attitude. A regional development agency official told me the other day that they were allowed to fund events during purdah, but not to tell anyone about them. Am I alone in thinking that’s just bonkers?

  2. Hi Julian

    I hear what you’re saying, and the degree of caution you hear from civil servants like me must seem odd. The bottom line, without being too officious about it, is that our job is to serve the current and future administrations impartially, and to retain the confidence of ministers in that impartiality:

    civil servants must not take part in any political or public activity which compromises, or might be seen to compromise, their impartial service to the Government of the day or any future Government


    Source: Civil Service Management Code

    It’s a red line, without which, however effectively we do our jobs, we put the civil service in a whole new constitutional ball game. And the point I guess I’m making here is that the perception of impartiality in 2010 is in grave danger when you share lots of details of your professional life and personal opinions publicly online during an election campaign.

    But that’s not to say civil servants don’t take it too far sometimes. If you hear something manifestly daft, do challenge and point them to the Cabinet Office guidance when it’s issued. Impartiality is fundamental, but not the only consideration.

  3. Steph, I understand that this post is first and foremost about protecting your livelihood, your income, a job you appear to enjoy, your mortgage payments, and all of that. I would probably do the same.

    But it also speaks to me more broadly about the limits of participatory democracy and the role of the civil service being servants to ruling power structures.

    Isn’t it absurd, cruel and defeating (you suggest ‘sad’) that you, a man of good judgement and conscience, feel the need to become mute during the election, a time when Government, the master whom you serve, who I elect, is beholden to the people. You and me. Us. All of us. And you are mute.

    The point of ‘Digital Engagement’ is surely to offer greater opportunity and incentive to individuals to take a role in the governing of their society, their lives. You have advocated and made efforts to realise this potential to a degree that very few other civil servants have matched.

    It is sad (and as I said, I don’t blame you), that in one way or another, you think your work could put you at risk, jeopardise your safety and by extension, the safety of your family.

    One step at a time, I guess. But I think you’ve implicitly underlined the limits of ‘Digital Engagement’ in 2010. Here’s to 2014, when hopefully, you’ll feel free to truly participate in the election. You are a Civil Servant, but first and foremost, you are a citizen and democracy needs your engagement.

  4. It’s a shame you have to do it Steph, but nobody wants you – or indeed any other blogging civil servant – to get into trouble.

    Anyone maintaining a silence during purdah is welcome to guest post anonymously on DavePress! (I need the help…)

  5. Steph, I’ll look forward to your return from the desert post-election.

    It’s going to be a rollercoaster at Directgov. We’ve always known that an election and purdah would be a white knuckle ride for a citizen facing, service delivery tool. Particularly one that has a newsroom, video and social media interests.

    Valium prescription is due! 😀

  6. In my business, we have a purdah of sort pretty much every year. It’s a lesser purdah sure, but I’ve never stopped publishing the blog during those periods. But I shift my focus to officers and don’t write about councillors. I’m careful which councils I refer to – as in any given year a significant portion of councils are NOT having elections.

    I’m not sure how I’m going to handle Twitter this year, though. Unllike previous years, I converse regularly with councillors via Twitter – some of whom are running for office, some of whom I might support politically and some of whom I don’t.

  7. Thanks to both you and Steph for giving those of us trying to walk the walk in public sector social media something to think about.
    I know that there is one social media project I’m going to carry on with – I’m sharing my photo-a-day project via a flickr group, and dont think that could be misconstrued – but as for everything else – I think I’m with Steph – I’ll go fairly dark during that period – after posting a note explaining why. Although I’ll definitely keep listening!

    By the way – I like most things about your new site, apart from the white on black text (just a style preference for me, its still easy to read.)

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  8. I’m more with you I have to say Simon. As I commented on Steph’s blog:

    “Disagree. Not sure how general Gov20 discussion or personal blogging/tweeting will be an issue.

    Also ‘ Be Brave’? http://blog.helpfultechnology.com/2010/01/be-brave”

    Those kind of mixed messages (within the space of two weeks) will only confuse people more, reduce their desire to take ‘risks’ (very little is truly risky it must be said) and damage or slow the Gov20 ‘movement’.

    So please, Be Brave (without being stupid obviously – but that goes without saying), lead the way and encourage others to follow.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  9. “At some point before early June we’re going to be having a general election, which for civil servants and local government officers means a purdah period between when the election’s called and polling day itself.”

    Well yes for the general election however since the council election date is fixed AFAIK the purdah period for that begins on 29 March, so I suspect there may be two purdah periods depending on the timing of the general election.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  10. I know what you’re saying Dom and I’m with the sentiment. But with my pragmatic hat on I know how quickly unintentioned meanings can be given to social media content through changes in context. And that’s where the risk comes from – am still thinking on this one though!

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  11. Hi Craig – yes, was thinking of my situation where we don’t have locals until May 2010.

    If the general election is on 6 May, purdah period will be (at the latest) from 17 April (as that’s the last date that the minimum period between notice of election and election itself can be), but is more likely to start earlier – depending on the length of general election campaign that the Prime Minister wants.

    General election campaigns are typically 4-6 weeks – so 6 weeks would make it start on Thursday, 25 March – so that’s my planning assumption at the moment.

    But of course it could come at any time before then, or indeed a bit after as well!

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  12. I am utterly cautious when it comes to the whole purdah thing.

    I have many views, for and against my current administration personally. That said, I will tow the corporate line and despite having nearly 3000 tweets, I won’t ever expose myself to possible compromise no matter who is in power.

    Local politicians generally hate prs … esp if in opposition – I ain’t gonna give those ……… ers a chance to do me.

    We enforce a six week rule – staying on the safe side of things we don’t quote any elected member and direct journos to them.

    ANY comms method that a local authority displays during that period should come under the code. We are communicating by using new media … no different from the old skool!

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  13. Think it’s worth thinking through some examples of how this might be an issue – a blog about social monitoring? a tweet about a Harvard video on Gov20? not sure how these could be seen as contravening anything exactly.

    What are the type of things that you’ve written about in the last 12 months that count as risky? What contravenes the Purdah rules?

    A lot of what happens in this election will set the tone for life in this field thereafter. We need to remember that. We all (me included) regularly wish for things to be different, for change to be quicker, for life to be different. Until we lead how can we expect others to follow?

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  14. This is a good point, Simon, and it’s interesting to see people’s thoughts on it. But I think are two issues wrapped up in the one discussion here.

    The first is about the actual purpose of purdah – to prevent the incumbent party from using the machinery of government to get an unfair advantage in the election. It’s a government communicator’s job to promote, explain and defend the government’s policies. But once an election is called they’re no longer the government’s policies, they’re the policies of just one of the parties standing for election. Hence no government publicity campaigns, no big announcements, etc. Your personal blog is not part of the machinery of government

    The second is the need for public servants (certainly those at any level of seniority or experience) to be unbiased and to serve the administration of the day. But this should happen all year round, not just during purdah. And I think any half-decent communicator – public sector or private – would have the judgement to know that they are only serving the client of the day and that the competitors of today’s client could easily be tomorrow’s client. They should offer the very best professional advice, but maintain a level of professional detachment. They know what it is safe to comment on, and what to steer clear of.

    There is a third issue, which is more social media specific: What happens if someone (a party activist, for example) starts making political comments on your blog? That does put you in a potentially tricky position. But that will be negated if you moderate your comments.

    So, looking at it like that, I don’t see any reason why purdah should stop you blogging at all and I look forward to reading your thoughts on the election!

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  15. Hi Steph,

    As a former government communicator in the Dept of Health I think this is a really interesting issue. But I think are two issues wrapped up in the one discussion here.

    The first is about the actual purpose of purdah – to prevent the incumbent party from using the machinery of government to get an unfair advantage in the election. It’s a government communicator’s job to promote, explain and defend the government’s policies. But once an election is called they’re no longer the government’s policies, they’re the policies of just one of the parties standing for election. Hence no government publicity campaigns, no big announcements, etc. Your personal blog is not part of the machinery of government.

    The second is the need for public servants to be unbiased and to serve the administration of the day. But this should happen all year round, not just during purdah. The bit you highlight from the CS Management Code hits the nail on the head. But that applies all the time, not just during purdah, so as long as you stick the to the issues you’re covering now, I don’t see any reason why purdah should affect your blog.

    But I won’t come to your blog looking for a warts-and-all insider’s view of how your ministers have lost the plot as election fever takes hold…

  16. @Dan: Ah, you’ve exposed the logical flaw that was nagging at me while I was quoting the Civil Service Management Code in the reply above – yes indeed, if perceived impartiality is the issue, then it applies all year round.

    I suppose my point remains that purdah (and reshuffles) are inherently *more dangerous* times because media, politicians and their staffers are looking for insider stories to make something out of. And in purdah, civil service management itself is particularly hot on watching out for how the troops behave.

  17. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for the comment – three insightful points.

    Agree with all three of them. In particular the point re need for apoliticality (is that a word?) all the time – which is of course true.

    But I think the context is important – what would normally be considered apolitical can suddenly become political during the context of an election campaign (ie purdah) – and because social media makes the context shift faster than previous elections, I think that’s underpinning why Steph has taken his decision.

    I’ve been mulling this over since I posted yesterday and am still very much in two minds – but once I know what I’m doing I’ll be posting about it whatever I decide!

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  18. Steph, the more I think about it, the more I think you’re right: Purdah shouldn’t make a difference, but it probably does becasue of the potential for social media to be used for mischeif making, as I’ve set out here:

    http://danwoodcomms.co.uk/2010/02/safety-first-for-election-2010/

    Will be interesting to see if there are any social media casualties of Election 2010 – you’re right to make sure you’re not one of them.

  19. Simon, as I’ve also said on Steph’s blog, the more I think about it, the more I think you’re right: Purdah shouldn’t make a difference, but it probably does becasue of the potential for social media to be used for mischeif making, as I’ve set out here:

    http://danwoodcomms.co.uk/2010/02/safety-first-for-election-2010/

    Will be interesting to see if there are any social media casualties of Election 2010 – you’re right to make sure you’re not one of them.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  20. I think in your shoes Simon, it’s probably a wise move to be cautious about how and what you blog about during the pre-election purdah.

    The situation for civil servants seems to be less than clear, but having done some quick research on this, it appears that local government officials may be subject to legal constraints which might impact on their personal blogging activities.

    Referring to this guidance http://bit.ly/8XQJa3 (there are similar docs elsewhere but this particular PDF is from Thurrock Council), staff in ‘politically restricted’ groups – such as senior management and those who speak to the media – are prohibited from ‘publishing any written work with the intention of affecting public support for a political party’.

    So where certain council staff are concerned, the argument that a personal blog isn’t part of the machinery of government and therefore ‘a safe space’ may be moot. DYOR etc.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  21. Hi Simon, Great post, and i may have misunderstood something here. I agree with the sentiment, but are you referring to a general election or local election or both happening at the same sort of time when it comes to making your decision?

    We had elections for the council last year and i didn’t stop blogging or tweeting. However at the time i did make a conscious decision to “tone” down my posts but not to stop, i didn’t think it was even appropriate to state what i was doing as i thought that would only draw attention to myself. I agree there are risks but i made it through the other side – so to speak.

    However, i think you are right to raise this as we ought to understand some of the boundaries and the more we understand the better we can manage our own risks. It will inevitably be an individual choice.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  22. In both central and local government, the principle of political restriction is a constant. My blog shouldn’t ever have ‘the intention of affecting public support for a political party’. But since it doesn’t have that intention, the election shouldn’t make any difference. Of course in practice, sensitivity may well be heightened – but that’s a different issue.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  23. It’s an interesting issue and there is nothing really wrong with a safety first approach – that is basically what the rules point to if you want to avoid trouble.

    To wander off-topic a little, I think it does point to the wider issue of whether the requirement for civil service neutrality is right in the first place… I know its like the Holy Grail of the civil service, but would be interesting to see it debated at some point…

    Is it right that civil servants give up their right to free speech?

    Given that civil servants hold their political views just as strongly (perhaps more so) than the public, is it just a sham to prevent them expressing them?

    Why hide the views of those who are implementing a policy? If they are opposed to it, surely it is better to allow them to express that rather than set about (perhaps) half-heartedly implementing a policy they don’t believe in and think will be doomed to fail (which might become self-reinforcing anyway).

    If more people, especially at senior levels, are bought in from outside the civil service, its quite possible we’ll already be able to Google them to find out what they think on some issues anyway from past blogs, speeches, articles, etc.

    So I just think the rise of social media could prompt a wider debate which might be useful to have, even if it doesn’t result in any change.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  24. Thanks Stefan. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. Dan Wood raises a good point about political comments from party activists. As blog owners are responsible for all content they publish (including third party comments and even trackback links!), extra care needs to be taken here to avoid charges of political bias or intent.

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  25. Hi Carl,
    At Medway we’ve not got local elections until May 2011, so I’m thinking about the general election.

    I think I’m more relaxed about locals as the context change isn’t as big (in terms of scale of scrutiny etc) as in a general election. I didn’t stop blogging/twitter during the previous local elections or Euro elections, but there’s just something nagging me about this general election and the role social media is playing nationally that feels inherently more risky.

    Whether it’s too risky, I’m still unsure!

    This comment was originally posted on Simon Wakeman – Marketing and public relations

  26. Being in your team I think we should follow your lead Steph but when does it kick in – when the election is called? Or effective immediately?

    It’ll be interesting to see the impact of social media on this election, shame we can’t blog/tweet on it but I look forward to others doing so.

  27. think you are probably right to keep a low profile, not so that you can keep your job, but that you don’t bring the service into disrepute, not that you would of course, but we all know how the meeja can twist the slightest thing out of context…
    Until the old meeja is dead and the new media rule (2014?) I think you have made a wise choice. You can always follow and comment under a different name if you miss twitter.
    Personally I am of so little importance nothing I say or tweet would be of the slightest interest to anyone, but I am going into purdah too once it starts, because I don’t want to lose any friends, and I think it is all gonna get very noisy out there.
    I have already unfollowed nearly every politician of all parties because some tweet such nasty drivel. The ones left, like Tom Watson are ok, as are many councillors. The rest need some lessons. Job for your department?
    Anyway great post as ever, and some great comments and pause for thought. Thanks for being human and sharing them.
    chris

  28. Steph,

    Browsing for some pearls of wisdom on precisely this topic I was what a pleasure to stumble across a trusted voice!

    I think your position is the wise one, but I do think Cabinet Office is missing an opportunity here, if the guidance is as cautious as I expect it will be. We had an internal presentation on this at CLG and practically every question asked from the floor threw up a new problem: what about government-sponsored forums for example,
    especially those directed towards a young audience. Will there be no moderator intervention during purdah?

    But as others have pointed out, purdah just brings into sharp relief the grey areas of civil servant engagement on the web more generally. As a recent joiner I’ve put quite a lot of thought into this recently. And I am increasingly of the view that it’s not just that the CS code doesn’t properly account for social media, there’s actual a wider problem with regulating and allowing for what you might broadly call ‘social movement’ politics generally. As the code currently stands you could make a case for no civil servant ever signing an on-line petition or contributing in a personal capacity to an online discussion on any political issue (in the broadest sense).

    I understand and respect the value of an ‘impartial’ civil service but I’m not sure we are collectively best served by civil servants who are so wary of being tripped up or perceived as ‘disloyal’ they disengage from the wider debate. (And it’s particularly perplexing if you work in or with those bits of government that are about active citizenship – something that often feels like it’s supposed to apply to everyone else). If I were a lawyer no one would assume that having previously expressed an opinion on a subject prevented me from representing a client; it would be understood that I was governed by a code or practice that would lead me to serve my client to the best of my ability whatever my personal opinion. If government saw its civil servants as active citizens with in addition to their own views a strong sense of duty to the processes of effective democracy (rather than to a greater or lesser degree the enemy within) then the overall picture might be rather different.

    Mary.

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Webmentions

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