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Published on June 28, 2011

Our Responsibilities as Citizens

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is a Senior Associate of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

Statue of split head facing in two directionsWe now have all core staff of Involve on Twitter. This raises challenging questions for us about whether they are doing it as employees or as private citizens. How do individuals and organisations negotiate the increasing blurring between personal and professional identity? Surely there must be a better way than yet another policy for staff to follow?



One of the exciting things about working here is that all of my colleagues are as passionate as I am about finding new ways to engage citizens in the things that matter to them. So we mainly tweet about issues relevant to Involve.

However, all Involve staff are engaged in a range of other issues that they care deeply about. They tweet about these things too because they are interested in learning more and engaging in conversations to try to understand the world better.

Twitter is the place where the professional and personal lives of all staff have suddenly become very blurred and it’s causing us some angst.

I trust my colleagues enough to be confident that they wouldn’t run into the sorts of problems that others using Twitter have run into (see here and here). However, I’m increasingly less confident that our anything goes social media policy (i.e. no social media policy) is the kindness to my colleagues that I thought it was.

Involve is a special sort of organisation. It walks a fine line between all sorts of political issues. While we are passionate advocates for more and better public engagement in many political decisions, we are deliberately agnostic on the issues themselves. Not only is Involve not Party Political, it is not Political at all. This has to be the case if we are to create the space where individuals, organisations and stakeholders who may hold radically opposing viewpoints can come together to build alternative visions for the way forward.  (I’m aware that this is only one purpose for public engagement, and it isn’t even the only thing that Involve does it for, but for the narrow purposes of this post it is the most important).

What makes the twitter feeds of Involve staff interesting (I hope) is that we are clearly individuals trying to make sense of a complex world; individuals who even occasionally disagree with one another. However, as we generate a set of twitter feeds that demonstrate that we are engaged with the outside world, do we risk compromising the ability of the organisation to create safe spaces where opposing views can explore their differences?

I want to find a way to protect staff from inadvertently affecting Involve’s reputation while giving them the freedom to be themselves. The obvious solution is to write a policy that dictates what staff can and cannot say on social media platforms like Twitter. As a solution this has its merits, but we are all concerned that it will impose Involve’s needs on the personal parts of our lives. Will that mean that we can no longer protest, take a public stance about an issue that affects us personally, or an issue that we care deeply about?

As we discussed the issue, I began to reflect that social media is changing the world far faster than I had understood; the very power of social media to give our opinions a platform also constrains us. With the power of social media comes a level of responsibility that we, who are used to viewing ourselves as private citizens, are only just beginning to understand. We are increasingly public citizens with all the implications that this entails.

There are a number of helpful posts and conversations going on about this issue. However, none of these quite answer the set of questions social media raises for Involve. I’d be really interested to find out what others think about how I support my colleagues to navigate their new found powers and responsibilities. A social media policy is the only tool I feel I have in the box, and yet instinctively it feels like the wrong tool.

Image credit: John Oram


13 Responses to “Our Responsibilities as Citizens”

  1. June 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I for within a small charity where Twitter use is common, and on top of that I spend rather a lot of my time promoting twitter (and other social media tools). What you talked about is a common concern within many organisations. It is worth noting that even if you weren’t using twitter within your organisation some of your staff probably would. in many organisations staff are expected to behave in a certain way when outside of the job, simply by fact of their role, the medium for this behaviour is irrelevant.

    A good policy document should not explicitly set out what is right and wrong, but offer guidance as to how to behave, the tone to use and advice on how to deal with potential problems. In many cases these should be (or are already) dealt with within the HR sections of a staff members contract.

    If staff are communicating as the organisation these controls may need to be tighter (restricting communication of a political nature for instance)

    • Simon Burall
      June 28, 2011 at 2:03 pm

      Thanks Ben, I was pretty certain I wasn’t alone in my angst so that’s good to hear. The key challenge would appear to be getting the balance right for each individual organisation.

  2. David Wilcox
    June 28, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    I’m seeing some organisations where individuals have a personal-organisation account – e.g. @jessdta – perhaps as well as a personal one.
    Is it like face-to-face engagement? When representing Involve publicly you are the same person as privately, but with a narrower range of issues, behaviours?
    Just a quick thought. Others have grappled more deeply

  3. Kris Witherington
    June 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    This is a tricky issue, especially for those working in the public sector with politically restricted roles. I have never been convinced by the ‘views are my own’ get out. If you mention who you work for then you are representing them whether you like it or not and what you say will have an impact on their reputation. So do you mix the personal with the professional then?

    For some the answer has been to post anonymously and say whatever you like but then look what can happen once exposed (@Nakedcivilservant). Some do seem to manage to blend both worlds successfully but this may have more to do with their employer having a more relaxed approach or the employee sticking to non-political issues.

    The alternative is to separate the work from the personal and have two accounts operating in two different worlds. I have tended to go down this road and treat Twitter as I would any other form of communication. This means nothing goes on Twitter that I wouldn’t be equally happy in saying in our reception area, in an email or on the phone.

    I’d except that for some this means losing something of value but then I wonder if any of my followers to my professional twitter feed are really that interested in hearing about my family life, my football club or what movies I’m watching. I certainly tend to skip these tweets from others. The other lost material are views on political issues I may hold but then I knew these would be taken out of the public domain when I took the job.

    This is an evolving method of communication so it will take time to evolve our policies to reflect real patterns of behaviour.

  4. June 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Good question, and one Demsoc is going to come up against as we start taking more work on. I think separate Twitter accounts make for less personality – and also you have to rebuild audiences every time. That might work if someone’s with an organisation for a long time – but given that our projects are 3-12 months at the moment, there’s not really time to put a lot in.

    I agree that a social media strategy in the subsection (2)(a)(i) sense isn’t what you need. Perhaps you need something more flexible, that tells people they have a responsibility to Involve not to bring it into disrepute, and also a freedom to use social media as they see fit – then the decision is up to them whether they want to use separate or single accounts. I think you probably need to be clear that an account with “Involve” in the name has to be more official-sounding than not.

    Catherine Howe has been doing some thinking about this – might be worth talking to her.

  5. Simon Burall
    June 28, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    David, Kris, Anthony

    thanks for your responses. I think that what you’re confirming is that there is no right answer out there – when is there ever? There do, however, appear to be some quite fundamental trade-offs that have to be made. These are quite intimately tied-up with what sort of organisation Involve thinks it is. David, you brought out the importance of organisational culture in one of your tweets and I hadn’t really considered this before. We’re just re-evaluating how it is we think we promote change. The more I think about it the more I think this social media discussion needs to be a part of that.

  6. Richard Jackson
    June 29, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    Having read the comments I think I’m more relaxed than most – many of my colleagues have a shared personal/professional account and tweet on a mixture of the two worlds. This approach also helps the twitter community engage with the ‘whole person’. An added bonus is the assistance provided in the usual informal networking at events etc. as it either helps identify people you would like to seek out (or avoid) or can cut out a lot of the ‘small talk’ that is the usual precursor to more important discussion. That said I believe that an organisation’s social mission and values are key (supported by trust and a ‘dollop’ of common sense) – if these are used to underpin recruitment then ongoing supervision and appraisal – tweeters (whether personal or professional) shouldn’t be saying things that are too wayward of the organsations position anyway.

  7. Simon Burall
    July 1, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Richard, thanks for that reply. I think in time that what you say will be a common feeling. Right now though the conversations that this post has generated suggest that there are a lot of people who are worried about how social media is going to change the way they interact online. My feeling is that this is a natural evolution and, as I say in the post, that we are just beginning to realise that with the power that we are handed through social media, so a greater responsibility also comes with it too.

    I think that the approach you are taking, focusing on mission, recruitment, supervision and training sound like exactly the approach that should foster that. It is a useful caution against moving down the path of a restrictive Social Media Policy.

    My worry is that in this transition individuals who are just trying their best will get caught up in something that affects their career; how to protect them while harnessing all that is powerful about social media?

  8. July 4, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    This is certainly something that I have had to fret over, in a number of scenarios. I think that a lot of difficulties arise from not accepting just how big a game changer twitter is, and in what way. As a result we try to maintain some kind of business as usual by bending old conventions and relationships, bending twitter (or other social media), and ultimately bending people themselves. These adaptive approaches may slow down the tide but, because there’s no such thing as sotto voce in social media, and because different online personae are ultimately connectable in principle or in the long term, they ultimately just store up trouble.

    My solution… isn’t a solution. But it is a recipe for starting to adapt to these changes and to develop new conventions. For reasons which begin off the organisational page, essentially those of personal well-being and self-realisation, I would advocate ‘radical congruence’ or ‘radical authenticity’. The premise here is that (should you choose to step into the domain of social media at all… even a bit) you should be prepared to be yourself in all places and at all times. If your job or public role requires that you state (unconditionally) beliefs which are inconsistent with those that you hold as an individual *there is something wrong*. Ultimately it’s bad for you and it’s bad for the organisation – or perhaps bad for what the organisation ought to be able to become. The most common manifestation is, of course, where you work for an organisation which holds values, or even requires you to state values, which are contrary to your own, and where you do so because you need to eat, put shoes on your kids’ feet, and save up for your old age… and because you’re not aware of any alternatives for you right now. I’m not talking about people who think and write for a living either – I could be talking about any workplace. It’s unhealthy for people to have to internalise this conflict – just as it’s unhealthy for them to have a bad diet, or too much stress. Social media at its best is a reason, or a way, to start ‘busting’ these dualities and then start scrutinising the way in which institutions cope with that change.

    As I say, this isn’t a solution. But it is where I think we should start, as soon as we can, to work through the logical implications and consequences of adopting this ultimately sane and healthy point of view… it may be the greatest gift social media has to give us.

    I’m sure there are solutions that are consistent with ‘radical congruence’ – organisations can have Policies (about their main business, not about social media) which are not the point of view of every individual who is a member, or even of *any single individual* who is a member, but which represent a set of rules and assumptions which everyone has found it possible to work with. It should be possible to be open about those policies *and* about those gaps. It should be sustainable to have minority reports, so long as there is a point at which all agree to implement the policy… or just go, if the gap is too big. This seems healthy and robust… the death of the myth of an organisation as a totally consistent rational agent, to reflect the death of the same myth about ourselves as individuals.

    I’m not clever enough to even begin to work through all the scenarios – but I would love to be part of a collaborative effort to do so.

    I also accept that there are some scenarios where the gap has to be retained… in particular where the organisation’s duty of confidentiality (to a client for example) has also to be upheld by its individual members… but that’s a constraint we can cope with, and it’s one which can survive the journey from old social connections to the new.

    There may be others where the benefit, to either the individual or the organisation, of being able to go public in the first place is just not worth the risk, or the contortions, of trying to agree a position. In which case, as a number of commentators have suggested here and elsewhere, it’s probably common sense just to shut up.

    I think you have hit upon an absolutely crucial issue Simon, and I suspect it is one which will end up being about the basis of the relationship between organisations and ‘healthily congruent’ individuals, rather than about how social media utterances are labelled and attributed. Please keep me in this interesting conversation.

  9. Simon Burall
    July 5, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Nick, I really like the concept of ‘radical authenticity’ – aka ‘just being yourself’. It is a way of thinking that potentially cuts through all the angst and worry, removing the burden of trying to remember which hat you are wearing in whichever social (media) situation.

    However, but, then again, and on the other hand… I think that there is a problem with your recipe too. I think it is definitely a problem for civil servants and possibly for organisations like mine too – though I can’t tell whether I’ve stepped back enough from our situation to judge this, or if I’m just special pleading.

    One of the central planks of the British system, for better or worse, is the notion of civil service neutrality. It is hard to see how, without politicising the civil service, you can allow radical authenticity to infuse the upper grades in Whitehall. At least at the moment the rules are clear – if we move towards a politicised civil service how do we know whether someone is being authentic or just pitching for their next promotion? Yes Minister satirises the power that civil servants have over their political masters, and that power is real. But with it comes responsibility – and I suspect a loss of radical authenticity, at least while a civil servant. One question that arises is whether it is possible to be a little authentic, let the bits of you out that are not political. The FCO blog I linked to above noted that football, for example, was not off-limits for that author.

    Basically though, I’m too steeped in the old world to be able to see a way round this. I hope there is.

    Involve is part of a loose set of organisations and individuals that try, to the best of their ability, to create spaces where conversations, and often deeply political conversations, can happen. An underlying principle is that we should try to remain neutral. The idea is that by being so we can help people who may hold deeply held, yet opposing views, find a way to build a shared solution to their shared problem. We are passionate about what we do because we believe that it can affect real, lasting change in situations where more formal political processes have broken down – or just won’t work for a range of reasons (there’s a whole post hidden in this sentence to explore this idea further I suspect). It isn’t a replacement for formal politics, but it is valuable because it can help break cycles of conflict (with a large and small ‘c’), for example, where other ways of doing things can’t.

    Thinking very much aloud now, and probably contradicting myself with every new sentence, I think my concern about radical authenticity for organisations like Involve is that it risks placing us in a position where we are unable to create those ‘neutral’ spaces. Or does it? Do we have to think about this more deeply and admit that by being more authentic we can be more honest about when we can truly act as ‘neutral’ convenors and when actually we do have an interest, or stake, in a decision? Or will it make it impossible for us to do this under any circumstances?

    My worry here is that the people who are good at our type of role are engaged, empathetic individuals. They couldn’t do the job otherwise. How do they remain engaged, able to relate to the people they work with and yet hold no views while demonstrating their radical authenticity?

    So it seems to me that Involve suffers from the problem of wanting its individuals to be open and authentic, but that this may not be possible for the wider entity – is this a case where the sum of the parts is smaller than the parts?

    I fear I am now running round in ever decreasing circles, but the discussion so far is helping to hone my thoughts and pointing to hard decisions ahead.

  10. July 5, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    As someone in the upper grades in Whitehall, I test this balance constantly, but I don’t think it precludes ‘radical authenticity’ in the way I take Nick to mean it. The deal in the British civil service includes political neutrality: some people decide political expression is more important to them and leave the civil service; others see the value of a neutral civil service and choose to remain within it. Some might see that as an intrinsically inauthentic choice, but it won’t be any surprise that I am not among them.

    I have written about maintaining the balance, more in respect of blogging than of twitter, but I think the same issues arise. I have published over 500 posts on my blog (to say nothing of 3,500-odd tweets), all of them I believe and intend consistent with the Civil Service Code, none of them revealing the full range of my opinions, and none of them focused on subjects which I could write about authentically only by being inauthentic. Crucially though, I don’t think it is possible to do that without, in a slightly different sense, being very revealing. I came across a great reflection on the effect of twitter recently:

    Over a sustained period of time or patch of ground you are always going to betray yourself. By that I mean that you will, layer by layer, reveal who you are and this will continue to be an ongoing and ever revelatory process. Other users will continue to be attracted to that or not, and vice versa. It’s really quite binary, whilst being relentlessly deep and wide, which I like. A lot.

    I think that boils down to two basic constraints. You do, as Nick says, ultimately only have one identity, and the way you use that identity inevitably reflects and reflects on the organisation you work for. So rule 1 is in general, don’t be a jerk. The organisation you work for will have topics – possibly many and broad topics – to which the views of its employees are reasonably subordinated. I can say what I like on my blog about dogfood, and maybe somebody in a dogfood company could be unconstrained about government, but the other way round doesn’t work. So rule 2 is do not contradict or undermine the organisation you have chosen to work for.

    That’s the easy bit. The hard bit is then applying those two rules, and doing so in a way which appropriately constrains without becoming a straitjacket.

    Some of the time, it does seem quite simple.

  11. July 6, 2011 at 8:53 am

    I think this may be slightly less problematic in one way for Involve as opposed to larger more disperate organisations, as you appear to be unified around core values and a mission, with like-minded people which might help bring a little more clarity to when the decision to tweet or not to tweet comes into people’s minds.

    It seems like a ‘co-creation moment’ to me. The problem as you say with ‘The obvious solution – to write a policy that dictates what staff can and cannot say on social media platforms like Twitter.’ is, as you of course know better than I, that policies written by those on high and imposed never work.

    A series of company brainstorm sessions to discuss concerns, implications, etc with those people would (a) raise the complexity of the issues in everyone’s minds, without it all coming from on high (b) generate more issues, answers, implications and potential repercussions that you hadn’t even thought of, and (c) allow everyone to participate in the development of thinking, whether it be a pause for thought mantra ‘are there any implications for this tweet which may be negative for me or the org’, to a few bullet points of guidance which your colleagues can create for themselves or a formal policy. If people are in far flung places you could start a or some such which people could input to.

    At least you have got plenty of facilitators to guide the process! Interested to know what you decide to do!

  12. July 6, 2011 at 9:12 am

    I was reading the International Red Cross’ social media policy for staff the other day (I realise you said you’d rather not have a policy) and one particular point seemed to stand out as the best one of the lot.

    “If you wouldn’t be happy to explain it to CNN, your boss or your mother – don’t say it”.

    Maybe that is over simplifying things but it seems to cover the bases – just a thought!

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