Twitter A New Tool For British Civil Servants

The microblog service is seen as a way to update the public on news releases, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, and government actions during a crisis.
Twitter may restrict its posts to 140 characters, but the British Cabinet Office needed 20 pages to explain the microblog to its civil servants.

In a document that included objectives, metrics and five appendices, civil servants last week were advised to produce between two and 10 Tweets per day -- at least 30 minutes apart to avoid overwhelming followers -- in an “informal, ‘human’ voice' to promote “comprehension of and engagement with our corporate messages.”

The Cabinet Office supports British Prime Minister Gordon Brown along with the Cabinet and the Civil Service and describes itself as “sitting at the very centre of government” with “an overarching purpose of making government work better.”

Its use of Twitter follows experiments with the service by staff at 10 Downing Street and the British Foreign Office, among others, and will be evaluated every three months.

“...I was surprised by just how much there is to say (about Twitter) -- and quite how worth saying it is, especially now the platform is more mature and less forgiving of mistakes,” wrote Neil Williams, head of corporate digital channels at the office’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), on his blog.

The Cabinet Office has also considered several risks of using Twitter -- accidentally leaked information, other security issues, and intermittent down time, among others -- but sees it as a good way to update the public on news releases, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, ministers’ movements and insights and directions during a crisis, “when Twitter would be used as a primary channel alongside our corporate Web site.”

Other governments and government officials also use Twitter -- including Spain and the Prime Ministers of Denmark, Norway and Canada -- although most don’t have formal policies on microblogging.

U.S. policies on Twitter appear to be mixed. White Press Secretary Robert Gibbs created a flap in the blogosphere last week after telling CNN that Twitter is blocked on official White House computers.

Later reports said that Gibbs was wrong and the White House media team does Tweet.

The Centers For Disease Control (CDC) also tweets. It has been using Twitter since February to update the public on the H1N1 virus, tainted food products, and other issues of public health.

And when the Air Force wanted to refute reports that GPS technology is failing, it turned to Twitter to get the word out.

Meanwhile, the next step for the British Cabinet Office is to set down “how and when civil servants should support, encourage and manage Ministers' use of Twitter for Departmental business (and navigate the minefield of propriety this might imply), and add a light touch policy for officials who tweet about their work in a personal capacity,” Williams wrote.

There's a big buzz surrounding Government 2.0 -- the revolution that's bringing the principles and value of the Web as a platform to the business of governing. Attend Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase and hear innovators show how this is really happening. At the Washington Convention Center, Sept. 8. Find out more and register.