Keeping quiet during purdah?

SimonGeneral31 Comments

At some point before early June we’re going to be having a general election, which for civil servants and local government officers means a purdah period between when the election’s called and polling day itself.

As a council communicator I’m very familiar with how the purdah rules affect the business of communicating, but civil servant Steph Gray’s blog post about how he will be avoiding blogging and using Twitter during purdah started me thinking.

Steph’s doing this because to him the whole nature of using social media while under purdah rules is too risky. The chance of being misquoted or inadvertently involved in a political debate is too great for him to risk his job over.

I understand what he’s saying and have been contemplating similar thoughts myself recently as the intensity of political activity grows both nationally and locally.

However my blog and Twitter content has never and will never be in any way political as long as I’m a public servant. The rules are very clear and I’m always very careful to only write about topics that are relevant to the blog and not politically biased.

But in the heat and excitement of a general election, particularly with the role that online media will play this time around, I’m guessing virtually any topic that I write about here could be construed as politically sensitive. Because I write about public sector communications (and mainly local government), comments about an organisation, for example, could easily be taken out of context and given a political angle that was never intended.

Similarly with Twitter I know that a number of local and national politicians from all political parties follow me (and indeed I follow them too). Which means, in theory, there’s a chance that political nuances could be given to my Twitter messages and I would need to steer clear of Twitter conversations with politicians during the purdah period.

I agree completely with Steph’s view of the risk here – my job as a public sector communicator is my livelihood and keeps a roof over my family’s head. I would be foolish to risk that job – but I’m still weighing the risks up against the professional benefits that I get from blogging and using Twitter.

I’m not sure what I’ll do yet, but I guess I’ve got a few weeks to decide yet. I will, of course, be posting my conclusion here before purdah starts.

What are other local government bloggers and tweeters thinking about doing during purdah?

31 Comments on “Keeping quiet during purdah?”

  1. Thanks to both you and Steph for giving those of us trying to walk the walk in public sector social media something to think about.
    I know that there is one social media project I’m going to carry on with – I’m sharing my photo-a-day project via a flickr group, and dont think that could be misconstrued – but as for everything else – I think I’m with Steph – I’ll go fairly dark during that period – after posting a note explaining why. Although I’ll definitely keep listening!

    By the way – I like most things about your new site, apart from the white on black text (just a style preference for me, its still easy to read.)

  2. I’m more with you I have to say Simon. As I commented on Steph’s blog:

    “Disagree. Not sure how general Gov20 discussion or personal blogging/tweeting will be an issue.

    Also ‘ Be Brave’? http://blog.helpfultechnology.com/2010/01/be-brave

    Those kind of mixed messages (within the space of two weeks) will only confuse people more, reduce their desire to take ‘risks’ (very little is truly risky it must be said) and damage or slow the Gov20 ‘movement’.

    So please, Be Brave (without being stupid obviously – but that goes without saying), lead the way and encourage others to follow.

    1. I know what you’re saying Dom and I’m with the sentiment. But with my pragmatic hat on I know how quickly unintentioned meanings can be given to social media content through changes in context. And that’s where the risk comes from – am still thinking on this one though!

      1. Think it’s worth thinking through some examples of how this might be an issue – a blog about social monitoring? a tweet about a Harvard video on Gov20? not sure how these could be seen as contravening anything exactly.

        What are the type of things that you’ve written about in the last 12 months that count as risky? What contravenes the Purdah rules?

        A lot of what happens in this election will set the tone for life in this field thereafter. We need to remember that. We all (me included) regularly wish for things to be different, for change to be quicker, for life to be different. Until we lead how can we expect others to follow?

  3. “At some point before early June we’re going to be having a general election, which for civil servants and local government officers means a purdah period between when the election’s called and polling day itself.”

    Well yes for the general election however since the council election date is fixed AFAIK the purdah period for that begins on 29 March, so I suspect there may be two purdah periods depending on the timing of the general election.

    1. Hi Craig – yes, was thinking of my situation where we don’t have locals until May 2010.

      If the general election is on 6 May, purdah period will be (at the latest) from 17 April (as that’s the last date that the minimum period between notice of election and election itself can be), but is more likely to start earlier – depending on the length of general election campaign that the Prime Minister wants.

      General election campaigns are typically 4-6 weeks – so 6 weeks would make it start on Thursday, 25 March – so that’s my planning assumption at the moment.

      But of course it could come at any time before then, or indeed a bit after as well!

  4. I am utterly cautious when it comes to the whole purdah thing.

    I have many views, for and against my current administration personally. That said, I will tow the corporate line and despite having nearly 3000 tweets, I won’t ever expose myself to possible compromise no matter who is in power.

    Local politicians generally hate prs … esp if in opposition – I ain’t gonna give those ……… ers a chance to do me.

    We enforce a six week rule – staying on the safe side of things we don’t quote any elected member and direct journos to them.

    ANY comms method that a local authority displays during that period should come under the code. We are communicating by using new media … no different from the old skool!

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  10. This is a good point, Simon, and it’s interesting to see people’s thoughts on it. But I think are two issues wrapped up in the one discussion here.

    The first is about the actual purpose of purdah – to prevent the incumbent party from using the machinery of government to get an unfair advantage in the election. It’s a government communicator’s job to promote, explain and defend the government’s policies. But once an election is called they’re no longer the government’s policies, they’re the policies of just one of the parties standing for election. Hence no government publicity campaigns, no big announcements, etc. Your personal blog is not part of the machinery of government

    The second is the need for public servants (certainly those at any level of seniority or experience) to be unbiased and to serve the administration of the day. But this should happen all year round, not just during purdah. And I think any half-decent communicator – public sector or private – would have the judgement to know that they are only serving the client of the day and that the competitors of today’s client could easily be tomorrow’s client. They should offer the very best professional advice, but maintain a level of professional detachment. They know what it is safe to comment on, and what to steer clear of.

    There is a third issue, which is more social media specific: What happens if someone (a party activist, for example) starts making political comments on your blog? That does put you in a potentially tricky position. But that will be negated if you moderate your comments.

    So, looking at it like that, I don’t see any reason why purdah should stop you blogging at all and I look forward to reading your thoughts on the election!

    1. Hi Dan,
      Thanks for the comment – three insightful points.

      Agree with all three of them. In particular the point re need for apoliticality (is that a word?) all the time – which is of course true.

      But I think the context is important – what would normally be considered apolitical can suddenly become political during the context of an election campaign (ie purdah) – and because social media makes the context shift faster than previous elections, I think that’s underpinning why Steph has taken his decision.

      I’ve been mulling this over since I posted yesterday and am still very much in two minds – but once I know what I’m doing I’ll be posting about it whatever I decide!

      1. Simon, as I’ve also said on Steph’s blog, the more I think about it, the more I think you’re right: Purdah shouldn’t make a difference, but it probably does becasue of the potential for social media to be used for mischeif making, as I’ve set out here:

        http://danwoodcomms.co.uk/2010/02/safety-first-for-election-2010/

        Will be interesting to see if there are any social media casualties of Election 2010 – you’re right to make sure you’re not one of them.

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  13. I think in your shoes Simon, it’s probably a wise move to be cautious about how and what you blog about during the pre-election purdah.

    The situation for civil servants seems to be less than clear, but having done some quick research on this, it appears that local government officials may be subject to legal constraints which might impact on their personal blogging activities.

    Referring to this guidance http://bit.ly/8XQJa3 (there are similar docs elsewhere but this particular PDF is from Thurrock Council), staff in ‘politically restricted’ groups – such as senior management and those who speak to the media – are prohibited from ‘publishing any written work with the intention of affecting public support for a political party’.

    So where certain council staff are concerned, the argument that a personal blog isn’t part of the machinery of government and therefore ‘a safe space’ may be moot. DYOR etc.

    1. In both central and local government, the principle of political restriction is a constant. My blog shouldn’t ever have ‘the intention of affecting public support for a political party’. But since it doesn’t have that intention, the election shouldn’t make any difference. Of course in practice, sensitivity may well be heightened – but that’s a different issue.

      1. Thanks Stefan. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. Dan Wood raises a good point about political comments from party activists. As blog owners are responsible for all content they publish (including third party comments and even trackback links!), extra care needs to be taken here to avoid charges of political bias or intent.

  14. Hi Simon, Great post, and i may have misunderstood something here. I agree with the sentiment, but are you referring to a general election or local election or both happening at the same sort of time when it comes to making your decision?

    We had elections for the council last year and i didn’t stop blogging or tweeting. However at the time i did make a conscious decision to “tone” down my posts but not to stop, i didn’t think it was even appropriate to state what i was doing as i thought that would only draw attention to myself. I agree there are risks but i made it through the other side – so to speak.

    However, i think you are right to raise this as we ought to understand some of the boundaries and the more we understand the better we can manage our own risks. It will inevitably be an individual choice.

    1. Hi Carl,
      At Medway we’ve not got local elections until May 2011, so I’m thinking about the general election.

      I think I’m more relaxed about locals as the context change isn’t as big (in terms of scale of scrutiny etc) as in a general election. I didn’t stop blogging/twitter during the previous local elections or Euro elections, but there’s just something nagging me about this general election and the role social media is playing nationally that feels inherently more risky.

      Whether it’s too risky, I’m still unsure!

  15. It’s an interesting issue and there is nothing really wrong with a safety first approach – that is basically what the rules point to if you want to avoid trouble.

    To wander off-topic a little, I think it does point to the wider issue of whether the requirement for civil service neutrality is right in the first place… I know its like the Holy Grail of the civil service, but would be interesting to see it debated at some point…

    Is it right that civil servants give up their right to free speech?

    Given that civil servants hold their political views just as strongly (perhaps more so) than the public, is it just a sham to prevent them expressing them?

    Why hide the views of those who are implementing a policy? If they are opposed to it, surely it is better to allow them to express that rather than set about (perhaps) half-heartedly implementing a policy they don’t believe in and think will be doomed to fail (which might become self-reinforcing anyway).

    If more people, especially at senior levels, are bought in from outside the civil service, its quite possible we’ll already be able to Google them to find out what they think on some issues anyway from past blogs, speeches, articles, etc.

    So I just think the rise of social media could prompt a wider debate which might be useful to have, even if it doesn’t result in any change.

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