Social media guidance for civil servants: October 2014

Updated 20 October 2014

Foreword by The Rt Hon Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office

Digital and social media can help the civil service reach out to the people it serves. Gone forever is a world when an anonymous man in an inaccessible Whitehall office made decisions on behalf of others – new digital technologies help civil servants across the country engage actively with the public. We can promote what we do, draw on new ideas, and represent the government’s views in discussion. However with these benefits comes greater responsibility – we are under more scrutiny than ever before. It is right that the public demands the same standards of propriety in the digital space as in the ‘real’ world.

It’s not rocket science – we must use common sense about everything we publish on digital and social media. Once something has been sent, it’s public. Following these guidelines correctly will ensure that your social media activity will enhance your job as a civil servant, while also retaining the highest levels of integrity.

1. Introduction

The purpose of this guidance is to encourage and enable civil servants to use social and other digital media appropriately to enhance our work. It also makes clear our responsibilities to do so in accordance with the Civil Service Code.

This guidance covers the use of social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook and digital activity in general both in and out of work, eg browsing websites, downloading content or posting or publishing anything to the web.

There are many benefits to using social media. It helps government to communicate with the public; to consult and engage; and to be more transparent and accountable. As civil servants, we are becoming increasingly digital in the way we operate. Alongside all the benefits that this brings we need to be aware of the responsibilities that come with it, and ensure we maintain the highest level of propriety.

More departments are opening up social media to their staff at work and therefore it is important to understand our responsibilities.

2. The case for social media

The Government Digital Service’s Social Media Playbook sets out the strong case for using social media in the public sector. It highlights how social media is becoming more and more a part of modern life, and how as government we shouldn’t miss the opportunities it affords. From open policy making through to customer service and communication campaigns, social media is a valuable tool.

Social and digital media usage is constantly increasing. The quality of interaction and demographics of our audience should influence our choice of how and when to communicate. The more we can learn about online communities, the better we can engage with them. Going to where our audience already is can save both time and money.

One of the best features of digital media is that it is constantly evolving, so it’s important for us to keep on top of trends, be open minded and consider the potential value of new tools and techniques.

3. Propriety and ethics

As civil servants, we are all bound by the Civil Service Code. The Code sets out the core values – integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality – and the standards of behaviour expected of us.

The simple rule to remember is that the principles covering the use of social and other digital media by civil servants in both a work and personal capacity are the same as those that apply for any other activity. Social media is a public forum and the same considerations would apply as, say, to speaking in public or writing for a publication either officially or out of work. In social media the boundaries between professional and personal are often more blurred – so it’s important to be particularly careful.

As civil servants we are (of course) free to use social and other digital media in our own time. But we always need to be mindful of our duties not to disclose official information without authority, and not to take part in any political or other public activity which compromises, or might be seen to compromise, our impartial service to the government of the day or any future government.

We must take care about commenting on government policies and practices and should not do so without the proper authorisation. We should avoid commenting altogether on politically controversial issues and avoid making any kind of personal attack or tasteless or offensive remarks to individuals or groups.

As more and more civil servants are able to access the internet at work both on personal and official devices, it is important that the highest levels of propriety apply at all times. The Civil Service Code applies equally to using personal devices eg smart phones, tablets or official devices whether at work or home. We must always act in a way that is to retain the confidence of all the people we deal with.

Further details are available in departmental staff handbooks and Section 4 of the Civil Service Management Code as well as on the Civil Service Learning pages (registration required). Some departments have their own social media policies – civil servants should make sure they are aware of their departments’ policy and comply with any departmental restrictions. It’s important that we are all aware that posting any content that is considered inappropriate – whether in an official or personal capacity – may result in disciplinary action which could lead to dismissal.

Top 5 things to remember when using social and digital media, either at work or in a personal capacity

  • common sense: social media helps us work openly and connect with the citizens we serve – just remember to apply common sense!
  • adhere to the Civil Service Code – apply the same standards online as are required offline, whether acting in an official or personal capacity
  • doubts? If in doubt, don’t post it
  • accuracy: check the accuracy and sensitivity of what you are posting before pressing submit
  • permanent: remember once something is posted online it’s very difficult to remove it

4. Engaging with the public

As civil servants, we can play an active part in social media. However, this doesn’t mean we need to answer all the queries and questions directed at us via social media.

Whilst some social media accounts are dedicated to respond to public queries, on other accounts it may not always be realistic or practical for government to assist or answer everyone who asks a question of us. We should always check who someone is before responding. For example, it may not always be obvious if we are being approached by a blogger or journalist, in which case we should refer them to our department’s media team.

The nature of social media is that it breaks down barriers between the public, private and voluntary sectors. The services and information that government offers exist alongside a network of organisations such as not for profits, non-government organisations and others. Many organisations have a presence on digital media and can direct users to information and assistance.

Care should be taken when editing collaboratively edited websites such as Wikipedia and engaging with chat forums and commentable articles – posts can be linked back to government IP addresses. Anyone found to be making inappropriate edits will be disciplined which could lead to dismissal.

Care should be taken to avoid sharing personal details of both the public and ourselves via social media and other digital channels.

5. Open policy making and service delivery

Online engagement can be very helpful when developing policy. This could include something as simple as asking questions for crowd-sourcing views or drawing attention to consultation events. For example, a LinkedIn blog can be used to gauge the opinion of people in the business community.

Social media can be used to engage with our service users or others whose needs we want to understand better or whose behaviour we may want to change. It offers us the opportunity to ask them to elaborate on issues so we can find out more, and if we know something that could help them, to share it. It is an effective way in which we can receive direct and instant feedback. Often listening is as valuable as engaging. There are a number of tools available which can help us to find out what people are saying about our policy area or service. These vary in focus, sophistication and price – some are free to use.

6. Further advice and guidance

In cases of doubt please contact your Permanent Secretary’s office or the Cabinet Office Propriety and Ethics Team.