Government 2.0 minus one

Like every other business in the UK, the Civil Service has been pretty much in hibernation over the Christmas/New Year period. But one story did emerge – the departure of Jeremy Gould as head of e-communications at the Ministry of Justice.

His decision to leave and spend more time with his family in Ireland is a great quality-of-life move for him and he’s to be be congratulated and envied for making the move away from the rat race of commuting into London every day. Although the news came through on New Year’s Eve, it has been teased and alluded to before that – but I’d hoped that maybe there would be a last minute twist and it wouldn’t prove to be the departure it looked to be. Sadly – no twist.

This is sad news for anyone who knows Jeremy professionally, and also anyone who is involved in government social media initiatives. As it happens, I fall into both groups, having known Jeremy for getting on for two years – first through telephone conversations on website rationalisation and transformational government policy, and later through too few face to face meetings (including being the recipient of a spare guest ticket Jeremy had for last October’s Public Sector Online conference.) I never had the chance to just sit and chat with Jeremy at either BarCamp or TeaCamp, or to work with him professionally: I naively thought there would be plenty of time for all that. Which just goes to show – there’s less time than you think, and you should make the most of it/seize the day while you can.

Jeremy’s been a significant figure in government social media: until I came across his Whitehall Webby blog I had no idea whether it would be even possible for civil servants like me to blog and keep within the Civil Service Code: and moreover whether there was anything interesting worth writing about as a civil servant. Jeremy convinced me that it was possible on both counts (although whether or not any of my posts since then have actually rated as interesting is a different matter entirely and certainly not Jeremy’s fault if they haven’t been!)

Having had Jeremy’s encouragement-by-example, it’s therefore a little worrying to see him write, in the blog post announcing his departure, that:

I’ve also found my extra-curricular activities being scrutinised and discouraged in a way I hadn’t expected after it being benignly ignored for the first year or so (tip for any civil servant bloggers: you may get permission or have a tacit understanding from your manager that its okay to blog, but if the management structure above you changes, you probably ought to start all over again. Previous agreements don’t seem to carry much weight).

Or as Puffbox.com wryly titled its story in tabloid-speak, “Mandarin blasts UK gov web failure“! It is a sobering wake-up call to those of us tempted to think that the battle for social media/Web 2.0 is won. While politicians are setting up blogs and engaging on Twitter all over the place, it seems that this is may still be too daring and problematic for certain parts of the Civil Service.

It’s difficult to know whether Jeremy’s experiences in this regard are shared by others, or a “little local difficulty” at Justice. Speaking for myself, I’ve found nothing but encouragement at COI Interactive Services so far for my social media activities, with my team and group heads both supporting the idea of blogging for all staff with considerable gusto and enthusiasm. Am I just particularly lucky to be working for a part of COI that is especially open to social media?

The other part of Jeremy’s “farewell address” to catch my eye was this passage about opportunities – or the lack thereof – within the Civil Service for bright, innovative, technically-savvy staff:

I have felt for a while that web stuff is still not being taken seriously enough. I’ve been scouting around for a new challenge in Whitehall for a long time now but the truth is that beyond building and managing corporate websites, those roles don’t exist. There’s been a lot of talk over the last four years of how more senior strategic web roles are inevitable, but in that time its been just talk. So there was no next move for me.

Now this really does ring true for me, and concerns me both on a personal level about my own career, and on a wider level of what this apparent reluctance of government to hire strategic IT staff – and to retain and develop those it has – will do to the Civil Service and the public sector long-term. It seems that the Civil Service would rather outsource this sort of thing to consultancy companies rather than try and update the Service itself, but that approach has limitations.

We’re starting to see policy drawn up in all sorts of areas that rely upon technology, but it is being done by policy officials and politicians with only the most basic understanding of many of the key technical aspects. That can expose the politicians to embarrassment – the recent ridicule directed at Culture Secretary Andy Burnham for floating the idea of “cinema ratings” for the world’s Internet, for example, seems an example of just this kind of poorly thought out suggestion that more savvy civil servants would have protected him from: if they knew that of which they were supposed to speak.

It’s at times like this that I think once again I did pretty well to land at COI all those years ago. While there are inevitably lots of meetings and bureaucracy to contend with, we also get to go in to various government departments, learn about their IT, Internet and communications needs, and help them shape the solutions and then deliver them. And once that’s done, there’s another client with a whole new problem to get to grips with just around the corner. It might not present much in the way of professional career advancement  (COI is something of a cul-de-sac if you’re looking at being a high -flying civil servant) but in terms of day-to-day challenge, variety and achievement if has a lot more going for it than many parts of the public sector. Or the private sector, come to that.

I’ve been at COI for nine years now (and that’s not including my time as a freelancer “for three weeks” before that in 1999) and you wouldn’t believe me if I protested that I hadn’t been looking around for other vacancies within the Civil Service from time to time. And the fact is, I’ve found very little out there that interests me: as Jeremy writes, the best you can apparently aim for in government is to head up a departmental e-comms team, but that’s about it. And when I’ve looked into such vacancies I’ve found that they seem to consist of almost entirely process meetings or line management responsibilities – little if any actual IT or web comms work.

That’s a real shame, because it means that any of the technically minded comms people around government will quickly plateau and then leave for the private sector, leaving the Civil Service with a skills deficit at just the time that the government is increasingly turning to the Internet, IT and technology to deliver on the most essential public service commitments. The government has a tendency to believe that the solution to most problems is surely some new database or some new piece of technology, so it definitely matters that the government should have techies on tap at all levels not just one Chief Information Officer.

It helps – it really helps – if you’re dealing with a client who is tech-savvy or at least open to the opportunities and possibilities, and who wants to learn and try new things. I was lucky enough to work with such a client on a five-year project for the (then) Department for Education and Skills, a fast track civil servant who frequently professed not to know anything about technology but who actually picked things up so fast and so accurately that he could have wiped the floor with almost all of the IT consultants plying their trade. It made a huge difference to progress and ended up being one of the best working experiences of my time at COI.

Unfortunately he, like Jeremy now, found that there was no career future in the web/technical stream – anyone with IT knowledge seemed to be relegated to tradesmen status within the Civil Service. Understandably, he eventually jumped to a completely different area doing ‘proper’ Civil Service tasks. The original project lost its momentum and creaked to a halt because none of the senior civil servants who were left had the passion, interest or knowledge to drive it forward. It was sad to see the fire go out.

And now Jeremy departs from the Ministry of Justice, and we’re one more insider down in our efforts to bring the Internet, social media, Web 2.0, technology and innovation in general to the Civil Service in the 21st century. I hope that eventually the Civil Service realises just how much it needs to change to reflect the importance of science and technology in the world – and how it needs to cultivate and retain members of staff with those key skills. Until it does, I fear that we’ll see a great many more high profile computer projects crash and burn on the front pages, and more government minsters ending up wondering why everyone’s laughing at their latest Big Idea.

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  1. Gosh, thanks. I’m not too downcast about all this. Things will change, just not at the speed that worked for me.




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