Breaking radio silence

And we’re back, after a frankly longer-than-expected quiet period over the election.

This quiet period – usually but incorrectly referred to as ‘purdah’ – finally ended last Wednesday evening, at the moment the Cabinet Office confirmed and published the final composition of the Cabinet and all the appointments of the Secretaries of State.

This is different from most people’s understanding of the end of the quiet period being “the minute the polls closed”, or “the moment that Gordon Brown went to the Palace”, as in fact it was officially later than both these events. With a ‘normal’ general election, all of these things happen in quick succession on the Friday after polling day so there’s little point in making a distinction, but this time around things turned out to be rather more … unusual, shall we say?

So what have I been up to? You may have seen the BBC news story about the “web revolution sweeping Whitehall” which was all about ensuring that government was able to swing into action in the event of a new government coming into power: all the old websites had to be archived, new content switched in at a moment’s notice, all to make sure that any transition is as swift and seamless as possible. As well as the BBC piece, Simon Dickson wrote a ‘behind the scenes’ blog post of part of the work that he was

Well, that’s what I’ve been spending my time on the last few weeks: not at the pan-government level I hasten to add (my colleagues in the Digital Policy Unit have been working on that in association with the Cabinet Office itself) but rather at the local- or departmental-level implementation for one of our clients. It was fascinating to be around a policy-making department for a few weeks to see the difference in perspective, and even more so at such an interesting and indeed historic moment in UK politics.

But now that work is broadly complete for the time being, and ‘purdah’ (sic) has been lifted, meaning that I’m free to blog again. Why was there the need for radio silence during this time? Well, the official reason behind the general election period guidance is the need for government activity to go quiet for the duration, so that government isn’t distracting from the political debate. It’s to leave the airwaves, posters and billboards clear for the campaign without falling over government information campaigns or policy launches which might hand one side an advantage over the other.

That’s fair enough, and an invaluable common sense principle I believe. But with the advent of social media, the effect of the purdah rules on civil servants also caused those of us who were regular bloggers and tweeters to fall silent and not say a word on any of the events of the last five weeks. And this, I confess, has disquietened me somewhat: why shouldn’t we, as private individuals, have the right to engage in the democratic process? It’s been frustrating at times not to be able to say anything at all about the only subject that people have been chattering about since April 6th.

The point is, ‘purdah’ is not an order or a legal restriction, it’s guidance: well-informed, well-intended recommendations of things to be careful about, the sort of advice about using social media that should be handed out to anyone whether civil servant or employee, such as:

Because of the proximity of civil servants to the very public sphere of politics, we tend to be more aware of such dangers. We’re certainly admirably far better supported by senior management in the form of all the guidance that we get. Sure, it can be frustrating not being able to speak when matters in one’s area of expertise come up in online discussions, and of course the advice errs very much on the side of caution. But at the fevered time of high excitement surrounding a general election and its unique aftermath, that’s no bad thing.

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