Is Public Sector Blogging Possible?

There has been a mini-storm this weekend in the UK public sector blogosphere about whether or not it’s actually possible for people working for the government can actually blog in any meaningful way without fear of reprisals, whether from their employer or in the press.

The issue in question is about a post written by one Owen Barder, a Whitehall civil servant who wrote a post that has been picked up by the Mail on Sunday in, one might say, typically hysterical fashion. You can read some views on the debate here, here and here.

My personal view is that Barder’s post, which compared George Bush to Hitler, was ill-advised for a number of reasons. One is that comparing anyone to Hitler outside a 6th form debating society is pretty daft; another that when one is blogging about an issue close to one’s day job, it’s important to be careful with the way one words things. This links into the eighth blogging tip I wrote about here:

Don’t blog about things you shouldn’t. Don’t leave yourself or (even worse) others open to personal criticism because of what you post. If you don’t fully understand an issue, don’t blog on it – yet. Read more, take in other people’s views. Don’t make yourself look an idiot. Don’t flame people. What’s the point? You can disagree with others while remaining polite. It isn’t hard. Don’t deliberately take an extreme stance to provoke reactions. The most likely effect this will have is that people will ignore you.

It’s important that people working within the public sector have the opportunity to share their knowledge and experience through blogging, if they choose to. But, just as with any employee, they have to ensure that what they blog about, and the tone in which they do it, won’t impact negatively on their employer.

There’s possibly an issue here about whether public sector blogs work better behind a password, like those on IDeA’s CoPs. Of course, this means the general public misses out.

I’m planning a local government blogging platform, and in it blogs can be set to be private or public on a post by post basis. But at the end of the day, the best method of ensuring that blog posts don’t cause an unwanted publicity storm is simple common sense.

Update: A couple of comments have revealed the truth of what was in Owen’s post – which I haven’t had the chance to see because his blog is down. It turns out that all he did was quote a Guardian article, where the offending comparison was made. Given this turn of events, it’s clear that the Mail had a particular axe to grind with this particular blogger.

Would such a blatent and inaccurate smear have been made against someone writing within the mainstream media? I guess not. The question in my post is still valid – but takes a different tone, I think. Is it possible for public sector workers to blog when their words are twisted in such a fashion by those who have an interest in discrediting them?

6 thoughts on “Is Public Sector Blogging Possible?”

  1. I think the point is that he didn’t make the comparison he’s accused of making. Rather he quoted The Guardian which had made that point.

    I think that had you had the chance to read Owen’s blog you would have found him the epitome of politeness. He’s been smeared by the Daily Mail through the most obvious of misrepresentations.

  2. You’ve missed a very important point about teh Bush/Hitler thing. Owen did not in fact say anything of the sort. He quoted the introduction, word for word, of a Naomi Wolf piece in The Guardian.
    REally rather different, don’t you agree?

  3. In which case, he’s been smeared in a most unpleasant fashion. Thanks for pointing that out guys – I’ve amended my post accordingly.

  4. Apropos your original question – “is public sector blogging possible?” can I direct you to a very interesting article in Demos, collection 23, pp 166-175 entitled “Flesh Steel and Wikipedia: Flesh, steel and Wikipedia“? (sorry if the arrangement of this is coming out all wrong – not finding the tabs the easiest for a borderline luddite like me). In this article, Paul Miller and Molly Webb pose some interesting questions about government and online collaborative tools, and I think it’s important that we ask ourselves WHY public sector might want to have blogging, and take it from there. Is it for public consultation? Is it for improving service within the public sector (yes, I know in a way these are the same things, but bear with me)? Whatever, it’s an interesting article (along with quite a few there), and I recommend it, if not as bedtime reading, at least over tea and toast in the morning.

  5. I think he should sue them (and we should support him). The likes of the Mail need warning off this kind of trashing — he would have a case but there is evidentally no legal clarity.

    I also await DfID’s response. What they should do is defend his right to free speech. They would know what he was doing and approve. He would have operated within any rules. If he has done nothing wrong, DfID should say so.

  6. Paul – I can’t really comment fully until I read the post in question. I’m not making that mistake again! It does seem like Owen has been very harshly treated. Am not sure about the efficacy of legal action, though…

    Tessa, thanks for the link. Will check it out. In the meantime, it might be a good one to upload to the Social Media CoP library…assuming you haven’t already!

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