The state of the UK gov blogosphere

(This is one of those posts I really seriously considered not posting, because I’m not sure whether I am talking bollocks here or not. Please leave comments, letting me know one way or the other.)

Here’s an assumption of mine which is pretty important to this post: that people blogging is important, and a Good Thing. There are a number of reasons I think this way – mainly that blogging is a great way to develop and share ideas, to create a movement, to develop a reputation. A healthy and active blogging community in a sector means that it’s a sector where there is a lot of creativity. It means that sector is an interesting place to be.

I don’t think the public sector blogging space in this country is anywhere near as developed as it should be. There are too few voices, and often one gets the impression that these bloggers struggle somewhat under the pressure that is created by the fact that too few others are joining in. This isn’t anyone’s fault, of course, and there are a number of reason why blogging amongst public servants hasn’t particularly taken off:

  • Lack of time
  • Lack of backing from up high
  • Lack of stuff to write about

…and no doubt plenty of others.

Let’s look at who there is at the moment, blogging regularly about government in a useful way:

There may be a couple of others that I have missed. There’s also a bunch of people outside government – but with, let’s say, an interest – who blog, like Simon, Dom, Nick, William, Jeremy, Shane, and me to name a few.

Public sector blogs does a nice job of aggregating this activity.

Obviously people write blogs about what they want to write about, and no one should be mandated to blog, or to write about certain topics. But I’ve been really getting into some of the tech analyst blogs recently, many of which focus on issues that are of great relevance to people working in public service: how to we go about getting adoption of ‘2.0’ ways of working within large, enterprise scale, organisations?

Check out some of these examples:

I love these blogs – full of insight, research, evidence, opinion, news, challenge and views. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a community of bloggers doing just this sort of thing for UK government?

I think we need a strong, vibrant blogging community in and around government providing some real analysis of what is happening, and some real thought-leadership in terms of what should be happening.

This should be tied to a conversation that I have been hinting at recently around not talking about social media as an end in itself so much as how we get news ways of working adopted in government, tied into technology enabled change around software as a service, cloud computing, collaborative technology and so on. Who’s blogging about what the vendors are offering government and whether it’s any good or not?

Are we that far away from this now? Does anyone actually need it? Am I way off the mark here?

I’m planning on convening a ‘State of the UK gov blogosphere’ session at the UKGovCamp in January where we can talk about some of this, and maybe do some planning around how we can get more blogging going in a more sustainable way within and around public services.

0 thoughts on “The state of the UK gov blogosphere

  1. Nick Booth

    I must say that my thoughtful blogging has waned – partly because my time is absorbed elsewhere and my online time is taken up with saying rude things twitter! 18 months ago blogging felt much more constructive and conversational than it does for me just at the moment.

    I don’t like that though and want to move back to sharing thoughtful/inciteful posts that give us all something to latch onto and move on from. To-wit I reckon you’re about right.

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  7. Steph Gray

    I’m looking forward to that Barcamp session 🙂

    For me, though it’s hard, has got me into trouble and eats into precious family time, I’ve made an effort to keep blogging this year (alongside much greater use of Twitter too). I started because I felt I had to walk the talk when I started working in this space ~18 months ago. But I’ve carried on because I’ve really enjoyed seeing the community around public sector blogs, not just from other bloggers commenting but from the much wider community which blog posts seem to reach, especially when I’ve shared code, tips or tricks. Bizarrely, people within my own large corporate organisation are now finding me via my blog, leading to very positive follow-ups.

    But you’re right that not enough people in the sector have the courage or confidence to blog. I think it’s about confidence, rather than lack of stuff to write about – it’s not that Neil and I have done anything particularly remarkable, but more that we’ve been able to talk publicly about the kinds of challenges and ideas that government webbies encounter. I feel like I’m hearing new voices in the comments on my blog posts and in responses to my tweets, so maybe that’s the first sign of a growing number with the confidence to put their views out there, and thence, to blog.

  8. Public Strategist

    I wrote about this a few months ago – http://publicstrategist.com/2009/05/the-voices-of-government/- and I think the general picture still stands.
    There are more bloggers out there, which is good. But great though many are – including those you name – as individuals, there is a strong skew towards those for whom one way or another, this is part of their job. The astonishingly empty set is of people for whom technology and/or social media are a tool not a job. As I wrote then:

    Where are the blogs of the policy makers, the operational managers, the chief executives, the tax inspectors, the social researchers, the whole army of people who make up public services? One obvious reason why there aren’t very many bloggers is that there aren’t very many blog readers. The blogosphere is so very large that it’s easy to overlook how very small it is. I don’t think most of the people I work with read blogs, so it’s not surprising that they don’t write them.

    As for the wider reasons, my personal view is that blogging remains a fairly odd and lonely thing to be doing. The civil service guidance on participation online – http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/resources/participation-online.aspx – does precisely nothing to encourage that participation. Outside DFID and the FCO where there is some structure and support, the number of ‘mainstream’ civil servants who blog is vanishingly small.
    I would love to join in the conversation you suggest. Registering for UKGovCamp now… but that’s still going to be a conversation among the converted.

  9. Dan Slee

    There are some really good points here.

    As a press officer who has a daily task of winning the internal argument step by step and room by room it’s not enough to read blogs about how cool a platform is in theory.

    What IS really useful is stuff that PROVE how cool the app or the platform is. And in the languague that laymen can learn. Often that’s the pounds, shillings and pence of statistics and figures. And case studies.

    That said, what platforms are there for the floating blogger to get a voice heard?

    There are several good people out there who are not necessarily being picked up by Publicsectorblogs – fine and useful job though they are doing.

    I’m hugely impressed with the US Gov ning http://www.govloop.com which provides a broad church for debate and ideas sharing.

    I’ve heard this said elsewhere, but isn’t it about time we had a UK equivalent?

    Surely, this will coax out those with amazing insights to share who may just not want to be faffed with the fiddle of a personal blog with an audience of a man and a dog but who can contribute to the wider debate.

    As a second point, it’s clear that unconferences spark masses of debate – and blogging.

    The ukgov unconference sounds amazing – and the debate sounds like its started already – but can we haz more, please?

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  14. Anthony Zacharzewski

    I think that blogging is a pretty thankless task – I find it takes a good chunk of the limited time I have to think about my own projects. To make it bearable two things help: (a) interaction and response from others and (b) a sense that you’re making a difference in some way. I think the reluctance of policy officials to blog (and their desire to remain invisible behind their ministers) hurts both of those: you don’t get responses from the people at the heart of things (compare with tech blogs) and you also don’t get the sense that you’re accessing people other than other public sector bloggers.

  15. Michele Ide-Smith

    I agree that there are loads of people out there who would chip in, but for various reasons might not feel able to. Time is a big issue, but also some people are not so keen on splashing their personal identity all over the place. Private communities like the IDeA Communities of Practise and Public Sector Forums are examples where many people who don’t blog already share ideas, ask questions, challenge, talk about what they are working on etc.

    As someone who’s relatively new to blogging I’ve found it really useful to get input and feedback from other people that I wouldn’t have been in contact with otherwise. When I first joined the Council back in 2006 I felt quite isolated. I’ve managed to miss all the unconferences due to other commitments, but have still managed to make quite a few useful contacts through blogging, Twitter, Ning sites and the CoPs.

    I don’t find I have a lack of things to write about. The issue is more whether it’s ok to write about some things because of the implications for the organisation you work for and you as an employee.

    Looking forward to UKGovCamp! Hope I can make this one without anything else cropping up.

  16. Whitehall Webby

    An excellent post, I found myself saying ‘hear hear’ all the way through it.

    I have always prefered the analyst blogs than the practitioner blogs in general, because they shared really great insight about stuff. I referred to them often and think they were very influential in my work. When I was blogging regularly from the insight all I did was talk about what I was doing in the hope that it might be useful to others in some way and giving attribution to the analysts where relevant.

    Like Nick and Steph my energies have been diverted by other endeavours and by family commitments, but also because I found it less than helpful in my day job. When I was free of that, I found my enthusiasm had waned. I would love to get my mojo back so think a session on this would be an excellent idea.

    Truth is blogging about government online has been great at creating some reputations, but not so great at creating a community (apart from amongst ourselves). It hasn’t really spread any further than that in the same way that many of the tools and approaches we have been jointly advocating haven’t been more widely adopted. I find that slightly dispiriting but also a great challenge.

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  21. Paul Webster

    ‘public sector’, ‘third sector’.

    I respect and admire anyone who has the time and wise words to write a blog, both in the third sector where I work and in the public sector where you are referring to Dave. But there are so many ways to contribute to the conversation, not everyone has the time and skills to blog and it would be foolish to do this if it was just to compete.
    We all bring something to the party, and at times will get chance to host the party, but a wise Tweet here or a Blog comment there which all build the conversation are just as valid.

    Those who lead / teach / co-ordinate work and projects are in somewhat a privileged position that we can blog and tweet as part of our daily routine. The officers, development workers, grassroots delivery staff simply don’t have the time or the interest … in a similar way to how they’d not contribute to the traditional media produced in our sectors.

    Yes there is a place for a community of influence that blogs and provides the insights that others can feed on and maybe offer the occasional comment to, but it does need to be easy to access (maybe through a collective Ning) and offer practical advice not of technology for its own sake, but how it can make communities better across both the third and public sectors.

    Personally, I have blogged, but now use Tumblr to grab and comment on things i’ve discovered and that others are saying. I also use Twitter a bit to build relationships and conversations.

    ‘public sector’, ‘third sector’.

  22. Paul Nash

    A good blog! Some really insighful view here. I think you’re right but that’s the nature of the beast. People gather in places where there are shared views rather than shared challenges. I speculated on this in “Democracy is Communal” http://www.penval.co.uk/blog/?tag=democracy . Conversations take place in different spaces and we have yet to find that aggregated space which allows us to take the holistic view. We also have to keep in mind that this is, relatively speaking, a small, select little group and while we may well come up with some exceptional stuff it’s never going to be a trending topic on “Twitter”. that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile or important but it is what it is.

    The work that Ingrid is doing on Khub is important for this reason; it’s creating the holistic space. I have doubts about ownership and official spaces but it’s an important step on the way to a bigger conversation space.

  23. CuriousC

    For me the pointing of blogging is organising my own thoughts – or in my case research stuff – in a place where I can easily manage it….. and doing it in a open/transparent way seems to be the right think to do when you are talking about collaborative demccracy and how social web can help the public sphere.

    That being said I’d like to see some mash-up sites where you can see posts around similar topics that are of interest to us all (ie social media / democracy types) that you can start to use as more of a resource – I’d rather do this in a shared space than try and run around getting comments all over – and it would also give policy makers a single place to look. I never really got to grips with RSS feeds and getting all that organised – and it seemd rather less community minded than a shared space.

    Perhaps I need to get on and build one!!!

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  25. Tim Lloyd

    Nice post. As a relative newcomer to gov web, I have found the spread of expertise and opinion available online to be encouraging and invaluable. I totally concur with the lists you have created here.

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  27. shane dillon

    A provocative blog that has done the trick; attracted comments (conversation) and led to some soul searching amongst those whose blogging efforts have waned for understandable reasons. As with many blogs related to the public sector I leave many of these posts more wiser and welcome the insights and tips. So my forays into blog posts are really to extend my knowledge. I am a civil servant who was posted to a web department in August 08 so reading about the work of other Whitehall Webbies has been educational and equal in weight to some of the courses I could attend.

    That said I do not see blogging as anything like as important as this blogpost suggests. Blogging was at the height of it’s self created bubble two to three years ago when stories were abound of folk who could make a living from blogging. True blogging made reputations and still will but blogging itself faces relative decline or is in need of re-invention.

    For myself I am a fan of Posterous and Tumblr and like the relaxed, easy to use and as I write an e-mail I can ask myself the question “Will I email this to post@posterous and create it as a piece of web content with perhaps a picture or video and pass it around. In work I post opinions to some of the Posterous topic groups set up for Twitter and Blogs these are less about blogging but sharing knowledge. I would not consider myslef a blogger and ok people don;nt speak like this but I rarely meet people who say “Hi I’m a blogger” People have a digital personality that is broader than blogging; they tweet, maybe post to Facbook, Posterous or Tumblr. Or the they may add comments or join conversations. Laugh if you wish but though not convinced wholly I am more confident that Google Wave will be a place for some great conversations towards the end of 2010.

    I look forward to BarCamp were the issue and relevance of blogging can be debated. I am open to a change of opinion.

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  29. Mark Clifford

    Is it more important to consultants making a living off the back of it than it is to public sector workers who don’t profit so directly from it?

  30. Whitehall Webby

    I don’t think so Mark, I think its more that the consultants are further ahead of the curve.

    The problem for those on the inside is that this is culturally *very* difficult to deal with, and until the culture does change, its going to make it hard for public sector workers to be accepted using these channels and tools in their work.

    Some of the consultants you refer to are actually former public sector workers who found the pace of change to slow and/or thought it would be more productive chivvying along the public sector from the outside rather than from within.

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  32. Neil WIlliams

    Better late than never…

    I agree that blogging is a very Good Thing, that the amount and quality of it can be evidence of a vibrant, creative community; and that this is sadly lacking in the UK public sector.

    And, while I’ll admit to enjoying being part of a small vanguard, it’s also extremely discouraging and makes me feel pretty exposed and vulnerable – so I’ve a vested interest in seeing more gov people out there blogging about their work.

    But I’m less convinced than some of the optimists commenting here that we will get there anytime soon and – if I’m honest – barely a week passes without me wishing I didn’t have a blog. As Anthony says in his insightful comment above, the desire to blog is a fragile thing.

    Like Steph, my own experience of blogging about my work within Whitehall over the last year and a bit has been that it is *really* difficult. Lack of time is the biggest barrier due both to having a young family and the day job spilling over into evenings and weekends. But this is closely followed by issues around permission and propriety. I’ve felt that I’ve had to restrict what I share and write about more, not less, as time has gone on.

    Which is a real pity – because writing about this stuff online gets me a lot of useful feedback, helps me make contacts which are useful to my employer, makes me reflect more deeply on the value of what I’m doing – ultimately helps motivate me to do the best I can.

    If it was easier, if I felt safer, if it were encouraged, I’d do it a lot more.

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  36. Bridget Hardy

    Very interesting blog Neil thanks. I didn’t know about any of these connections. I’d like to join in. Maybe write a blog myself. But need to know more. Could you let’s know about UKGovCamp?? You mentioned? Could we have a chat sometime in New Year?

  37. Bridget Hardy

    Apologies Dave – misread the tweet – thought it was Neil’s blog. Christmas Eve is a slightly fraught time!

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  39. Lesley Thomson

    Blogging is a good thing, yes, no argument there. And I think we’re actually getting to stage where we’re getting a good community of government bloggers.

    As to reasons why civil servants don’t blog…From a personal perpective my own blogging is limited by:

    – Yep, a lack of time. My blogging is done in my own time and I’m struggling to do any at the moment because I’m having to do so much of the ‘day’ job at home as well.

    – And yes, also, a lack of things to write about. Not a lack of things I’d LIKE to write about – but a lack of things I CAN write about.

    More generally, most civil servants I know are yet to be convinced by Web 2.0 in any shape or form (many still don’t see the relevance of the web at all!). Digital engagement more generally requires a dramatic shift in the way civil servants conduct their working lives and change can be difficult for us!

    It’s also a personal thing though. The reflective nature of blogging doesn’t come naturally to everyone. And for civil servants, it’s not how we’re taught to write! I’m a professionally qualified librarian and for my CPD am expected to be a reflective practitioner. I started blogging as a way of of facilitating that – but I have found it difficult. And reflection isn’t always something that is valued by managers.

    I’m sure confidence is also an issue. I’m under no illusions that anyone actually reads my blog (other than a couple of my colleagues and my boyfriend :-)), but as I blog for primarily selfish reasons, my miserable Google Analytics stats don’t upset me (too) much. The blogosphere can be harsh. Anyone starting up a new blog would need a very thick skin or they could get disheartened pretty quickly.

    Shame I won’t be at UKGovCamp, I’m sure your ‘State of the UK gov blogosphere’ session will be a very interesting one Dave.

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  41. Julia

    An interesting post and subsequent discussions. I agree with most – especially CuriousC – personally, I blog mostly to organise my own thoughts, to be able to find things again, and as others have said, think it is important to at least try to experiment and find out the implications of taking part . Its not until those of us who do have this as part of our day jobs ‘get it’ that we have any chance of enthusing others.
    As several others said – mainly Steph, Neil and Jeremy, the evolution during the last year has really happened extremely quickly, and we do sometimes forget what a tiny sphere we are part of. Until (if/when?) a much more open culture of debate, discussion and sharing ideas spreads much more widely across the majority of our colleagues, we need to keep patient, keep experimenting, and shout out loudly when we find examples of where being part of an online community or using these new techniques has helped achieve something. This should eventually reassure and convince at least some of those who would much rather keep doing things the way they always have.
    Good question as to where we should shout – as several said, often it is more comfortable to talk in ‘safe’ spaces, but then we are just talking to like-minded people. Ironically, I think we can probably achieve a lot by getting anecdotes repeated face to face by colleagues outside communications units and web teams, and articles in traditional newsletters – although the tools by which we can share stories between each other will probably remain the tools most people are most happy using at the time – popular blogs (like this one!), twitter, and face to face meetings wherever possible.

  42. Josh

    To add my voices to the above, a great post.

    In addition to things like time and commitments, it is true to say that there can sometimes be a risk-averse culture in the Civil Service (and wider public sector).

    Highly-publicised incidents of bloggers losing jobs over things they’ve written; an aggressive print media that swoops on any scrap of scandal over ‘blogs’ and public sector; restrictive guidelines for Civil Servants; and the feeling that ‘blogging’ isn’t work and therefore can’t be done ‘on work time’: these can all add up to a feeling that blogging just isn’t worth it, especially when, as Lesley alludes to, change is a difficult thing.

    Often anything that is *perceived* as potentially increasing risk to an organisation is unlikely to be supported formally from superiors either, or subject to the requirements that it be ‘controlled’ somehow (e.g. run through/by the press team).

    Considering that many senior decision-makers often develop a negative perception about blogging from reports in respected mainstream print media, it all adds up to an environment that is relatively cold and unsupportive when it comes to encouraging Civil Servants to blog about their work.

    Obviously, YMMV depending on what part of the Civil Service/public sector you work in, but I think that many colleagues may recognise some of the issues. Thoughts about how to combat that would be, as ever, greatly welcomed.

  43. Alex Coley

    I’ve barely got my head around blogging let alone government blogging but have found the bloggers mentioned in Dave’s post to be very useful indeed. Perhaps as someone who never could keep a diary I find it hard to maintain a blog.

    I concur with the lack of time aspect having spent much of this year covering my impending new line manager and another manager vacancy while onboarding eight new staff. My girlfriend still shakes her head when I am poring over Twitter as she is going to bed.

    While I empathise with the lack of stuff to write about, for me it is more of a case that the stuff which really gets me talking tends to be issues, problems and difficulties. None of which I feel wholly comfortable discussing in a public forum. Ironic really since when I chat about ‘the bad stuff’ down the pub I more often than not get comparable scenarios to learn from or even better, solutions!

    Those above me tend to think along the ‘lines to take’ mode rather than crowd sourcing. I understand why and how that works but it does make it tough to embrace the open, transparent elegance of web 2.0 which I so enjoy.

    Meeting and talking with other civil servants and people in the .gov space remains the best part of my job. However spartan or tricky the govblog landscape I’m forever grateful for what is there.

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  45. Dave Post author

    Thanks for all these responses, people, it’s great that this conversation is kicking off! The Barcamp session should be good, and for those that can’t make it, I’ll make sure some kind of coverage is posted here on DavePress.

    I’m no blogging zealot, and I’m both aware that a) it isn’t for everyone and that b) there is equal value in other forms of online publishing. But there is a vibrancy in blogging, that this post has highlighted, where longer – perhaps half-baked! – thought pieces can be discussed in an easily accessed, public space.

    If the social web is going to help improve government, rather than just government websites, then we need more conversations like these!

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  47. Michael Newbury

    Interesting post and follow up comments. I echo a lot of what has already been said.

    As a regulator of local public services there’s a lot that I could write about but much of this I almost certainly shouldn’t put into the public domain. So a lot of my blogging to date has been about process or things that I have seen or done that have no judgement attached to them. In part this is ok because I started the blog to strip some mystery away from what regulators do.

    The launch of our Oneplace website has made this easier in that there is published material on which to draw and expand.

    The interactivity of blogging is a bit scary. It’s easy to become a target of people who are – for whatever reason – thoroughly anti your organisation. The comment dialogue then gets a bit exlusive. “You’re rubbish”. “No, we’re not”. “Yes, you are”. Etc., etc.. Doesn;t exactly encourae a wider discussion.

    It would be good to get more comments from ‘real’ people who use and pay for public services. But it’s early days and we’re only just starting with social media. So be of ood cheer everyone.

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  49. Lucy Toman

    Another round of ‘Hear, hear’ from me.

    I agree with Michelle’s comments, particularly “I don’t find I have a lack of things to write about. The issue is more whether it’s ok to write about some things because of the implications for the organisation you work for and you as an employee.”

    Writing a personal blog about my civil service job is a constant balancing act between being interesting (and I do think my job is interesting, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t blog about it!) and being professional. My blog is suitably festooned with disclaimers but I still frequently self-censor. I’m not at all surprised that most people really can’t be bothered taking the risk.

    As Public Strategist says, the civil service guidance on participation online really doesn’t encourage ordinary public servants to blog, and indeed the ‘real world’ structure of the public sector means that most of us are used to doing our communication through central press offices and strategic communications divisions.

    Since we’re actively discouraged from talking directly to the press in our daily lives (and I quite understand why), is it any wonder that we’re nervous about making what could be construed as public statements via blogs?

  50. Nick Halliday

    This is all fascinating – the reasons why I blog about things totally unrelated to work. 1) dont want to think about work at home 2) others can do it a lot better than me anyway 3) it avoids any propriety issues – I know others who have had issues in the past. Ok so I am cowardy custard 😦

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