18-19 September 2012 – University of Bristol – Policy and Politics Conference
Policy and politics round table: Research, impact and social media
I joined a panel containing:
- Alex Marsh (University of Bristol, UK) (Chair)
- Matthew Flinders (University of Sheffield, UK)
- Colin Talbot (University of Manchester, UK)
- Peter John (University College London, UK)
- Antony Carpen (Social media awareness trainer, UK)
The slides for my part of the round table can be found here. (6MB)
What follows is a commentary on the slides. My remarks, while following similar themes are not a word-for-word repetition of what now follows here.
When I look at the qualifications and wealth of experience at the four panellists I joined, I feel both a little in awe and somewhat unworthy to be joining such an illustrious group. They are all professors at their respective universities, while I look after a dragon. How can I possibly hope to be seen as equal to them?
I didn’t follow the academic route as far as my interest in politics and policy is concerned. After a degree in economics and a postgraduate diploma in history, I joined the civil service. I spent seven years inside the system, just under five in Whitehall, before leaving to pursue a blossoming interest in social media. My social media handle – Puffles the dragon fairy was also attracting far too much attention within Whitehall and Westminster for a supposedly mute and inconspicuous creature.
It is on the back of Puffles’ profile, and that of my blog A dragon’s best friend that Professor Marsh invited me to join the panel. I’m very much something of a critical friend to the public sector and the civil service, blogging regularly about issues of public policy and public administration. Having seen the challenges the civil service is facing from social media users first hand, I’m in a unique position of being familiar with the policy-making process (including taking legislation through Parliament) while having built up a niche social media profile that is followed by politicians from across the Westminster political spectrum. At the same time I am also able to reach out to audiences far beyond Whitehall and Westminster too, having an active following of sixth form and university students as well as recent graduates.
1) The hour glass
I like this picture because it helps me show the various demands faced by ministers as well as the restricted nature of the policy-making structure faced by them. The pinch point of the hour glass represents ministers and their special advisers. Everything between political party and civil service policy unit has to go through them. Yet historically ministers face regular reshuffles. When a minister goes, the special advisers go too. This significantly impacts policy consistency. On top of that, with so few people to go through in terms of the civil service-political party interface, it is easy how to see what was agreed by a political party can be ‘hijacked’ by other interests.
Those other interests are those of the key stakeholders – one of the two dragons. These are the people and organisations that can make or break your policy. They also tend to have a low public profile, operating away from the headlines. It’s only when there are very high policy failures that with hindsight it becomes clear which key stakeholders were not onside. The other dragon is the mainstream media and the general public. The former mainly for tactical reasons, the latter because ministers want to stay in office.
Irrespective of all things social media, this weakness within the system is one that I feel needs to be addressed. Not least making more transparent who is lobbying for what, how they are doing so and when they are doing so.
2) Policy-making pre-internet
I put this slide up because I wanted to illustrate just how far we have come (and how far we have to go) since the mid-1990s. Its taken from a large analytical slide pack from my blog – The impact of social media on Whitehall that I presented at UK GovCamp 2012. A write up of that workshop is here.
The key point in this slide is that large organisations and institutions had and held the knowledge. The general public simply did not have access to that level of information. We sometimes take for granted that we can now fact check everything a politician or public speaker says.
3) Key stakeholders
How do you become one? Be an expert in the field? Have a lot of influence and/or a lot of money? The point here is that civil servants and ministers regularly meet with lots of people from outside of government in order to shape policy. My point here is to illustrate the previously discrete (i.e. ”not continuous”) policy-making process. There are specific points where the public are invited to take part in the process. Not so for key stakeholders. The public might get the chance to respond to the questions, but the key stakeholders get to influence what questions are asked.
4) The internet arrives
The big opportunity here was both in communication (one-to-many via email) as well as the spread of information. Information locked away in dusty libraries or forgotten about on the shelf was now able to be instantly recalled and distributed. (The same is the case of ‘disinformation’ too).
5) …followed by social media
This is significant because of the ease of ‘many to many’ conversations within niche fields. This is a significant step forward for academia too because it allows for far greater input and scrutiny in academic work. It also broadens and deepens the academic gene pool too – allowing for greater cross-field work too. Around the time I was graduating back in 2002, one of the new areas of economics was around the psychology of economics, unpicking some of the key pillars of mainstream neoliberal economics.
Social media also allows for academic articles to be cascaded far wider, and critiqued too. This may unsettle some because you may have no idea who is doing the critiquing. At what point are you being critiqued by a dragon fairy on Twitter vs being critiqued by a former civil servant who has worked with ministers?
6) The network is huge
No – really, it is. For any generalist working in a policy field, my take is that there will always be someone somewhere that has more knowledge, expertise and experience than you will. Hence why I’m glad I no longer work in a policy team! The size of social media networks are off the scale when compared to the size of policy teams. It is no longer possible for policy teams to hide behind Whitehall towers when developing new policy. Increasingly expect every fact, statistic, assumption, report, analysis or opinion to be scrutinised – and if it is found wanting, expect it to be flagged up.
7) Placing yourself in the network
This is what politicians, civil servants, policy makers, academics and institutions need to do. The social media genie has been released. Reports such as the Beecroft report are no longer acceptable and will get shredded – quite rightly. You cannot simply write what is effectively an unsubstantiated opinion piece and expect it to form a pillar of government policy. (Well…maybe you can but you shouldn’t!)
Placing yourself in the network means using the social media tools that are suitable for what you want to do and who to engage with. For example you wouldn’t use your personal facebook page to try and engage with a minister, just as you wouldn’t use a WordPress blog to post separate blog responses to every single comment made to a piece of your work across other social media platforms. (i.e. you’d use something like Twitter).
It also means finding the people who have an interest and passion in what you are interested in too. Remember that how people use social media is very different to how organisations and corporations use it. Hence why, as a rule of thumb I tend to follow and engage with the social media accounts of people who work for organisations I am interested in, rather than in the corporate accounts.
8 ) Example – creating new civil service social media guidance
I’ve not used this one because Puffles was involved, rather because the process that was used was ground-breaking. For a start, the ‘blank sheet of paper’ was open to everyone and anyone to write upon. What mattered was not your employer or job title, but the content of your comments and feedback. Being a former civil servant meant that I had the knowledge of the constraints existing civil servants had, without the burden of pulling my punches regarding criticisms.
The nature of mine and others’ social media accounts meant that the questions we were putting to people went far beyond normal audiences. For me this is essential if we are to re-engage the public with politics.
9) Lessons for academia
These are just some thoughts on how to use social media both in general and in terms of engaging with policy-makers. A basic one is to find out who the policy-makers are. Who are the party-political types? Who are the civil servants? Who are the trade press journalists? Who are the academics? Who are the interested activists and campaigners? They all have a role to play.
Remember too that social media means you will get scrutinised – possibly even more so than anonymous commenters or the general public. As an academic the institutions may give you that bit more gravitas than a member of the public. Expect and welcome that scrutiny and be polite when giving and receiving criticism.