This blog is mainly about the governance and future of policing and crime services. (Police & Crime Commissioners feature quite a lot.) But there are also posts about the wider justice system. And because I am town councillor and political activist, local & national issues are covered a little, as well.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Public managers: censored?

On Friday, I am taking part in Guardian Public Leaders network discussion on gagging, whistleblowing and public servants' use of social media. I have written this piece as a prelude to this.The link to the discussion is here.

I have been posting ideas, questions and opinions on the net for fifteen years or so. Sometimes for simple amusement, the serious exchange of ideas or indeed for the solace and support during difficult times. I have messaged, blogged, tweeted and posted with full transparency and anonymously.

During these last fifteen years, I have only worked for the state for one of them so my experience of being a public servant and social media activist is limited. I have been mostly free to say what I wanted to say. On one occasion when I worked for the Office for Public Management, I wanted to publish an essay challenging target culture. They decided that they would not publish it so I uploaded it to a random website, which is still visible to the this day. That was ten years ago.

I say all this to explain where I am coming from on the issue of whether public servants should be free to blog or tweet (or bleet as my wife describes what I do, sometimes into the early hours of the morning).

I hold it to be self evident that democracy cannot exist without freedom of speech and thought (while accepting that fair rules on slander and libel need to be applied to what is said and published).

Whilst I am appalled by, loathe and despair at some of the sentiments spread by some national newspapers, internet trolls who crave attention and bloggers who delight in scraping the bottom of any passing barrel, they are part of what makes the net free, colourful and vibrant. There is no single version of truth (or humour) in the multiverse.

But to return to the core question: when public servants offer their unexpurgated (and sometimes anonymous) opinions on the direction of government policy, does that enhance or damage democracy?

For me the answer can only ever be that it enhances democracy and moreover is likely to help achieve improved social outcomes to boot. Publishing ideas that challenge (or support) government policy is positive because it:
  • Helps citizens make up their mind about whether a policy is working or not, good or not, worthy of their support or not
  • Shines a scrutinising light on what government is doing on our behalf
  • Adds to(not detracts from) transparency and accountability of how our public money is being spent
  • Helps refine and optimise policy and implementation through debate and questioning
  • Connects people together so that further debate and research can be coordinated
  • Exposes the challengers to be challenged themselves
  • Channels dissent and frustration into the open air rather than forcing it underground which may lead to harmful sabotage
  • Helps those in power to be on their toes and nibbles away at complacency and insulation against dissent
  • Helps leaders (both political and managerial) know the full story (or do they prefer to live in ignorance?)
Because in the end, allowing public servants to engage in social media (whether anonymously or not) is all about power. Maybe I am a dreamer but I believe that social media is helping us to create a world where power is more fairly distributed. We all have to make a choice: do we want to be part of that project or are we happy to let those in power accrue even more power to themselves?


  1. Anonymous4/4/13 17:27

    All should be free to contribute. You never know perhaps someone somewhere in a position of power might even listen to some of the views occasionally rather than just brushing them aside. These are sincerely held beliefs and, in a democracy which we notionally are, we have the right to express them. In Probation we are trying to help people become full contributing citizens but we having our right to express ourselves threatened in case its too controversial or not supportive of the latest ideas from government. Shame on them.

  2. Looking forward to tomorrow...

    Please look at this survey on compromise agreements, which I carried out in 2011:

    This formed the basis of the Daily Telegraph's front page story on 3rd April (yesterday). I was 'banned' under a kind of gagging clause in 2009 within a compromise agreement from exercising my statutory Freedom of Information and Data Protection querying rights; by Cheshire West and Chester Council. They did this in an attempt to cover up either incompetence or malpractice. I got Hugh Tomlinson QC to make them back down - and when the threat of a lawsuit was taken away and it eventually came to asking the FOI question........... they said they 'didn't hold the information'. So I was left thinking "Why 'ban' me in the first place?" Haha!