News arrived recently that Britain's civil servants are being encouraged to utilise social networks as part of a broader new initiative to reinvigorate and modernise Britain's public consultation process. The development, revealed in letters from Sir Bob Kerslake to his underlings, didn't exactly go down a storm - hardly a surprise given that it was first presented in the Daily Mail, produced and read by people scared by anything more technologically advanced than the Enigma machine.
The Mail's article, of course, highlights a few intemperate outbursts from anonymous sources, drawing attention to the possibility that new methods of interacting with the public, incorporating sites like Facebook and Twitter, could "cost taxpayers millions of pounds a year in lost man hours," as civil servants will inevitably spend all day playing games, chatting to their friends, and posting photos of the hot new Peruvian joint in Soho.
As a result, the story's focus has been presented as the appropriateness of using social networks in a government environment. The subtext here seems to be that they are simply leisure time toys fit for organising student parties and trolling on disabled single mums with soft spots for womanising drug addicts. In fact, the issue at heart is the general competence of Whitehall to conduct its duties – and common misconceptions about social networks' viability as an enterprise solution.
Rather than hinder government, it is likely that the digitising of the public consultation process would dramatically increase productivity. Time currently written off for travelling, meeting with local dignitaries, and popping off to be entertained in the process could be made largely redundant by the wider deployment of online chat, video-call services, and, yes, digital forums including Facebook groups and pages. Not only would this save time, but it could also reduce expenses – perhaps one reason why Sir Humphrey and his cohorts are so up-in-arms about the prospect. There will always be a time and place for politicians and government staff to pound asphalt, but the exploration of new ways to conduct business – and the government and its affiliated bodies are, in essence, the UK's largest business – is a no brainer in this sense. We're not talking about replacing key council hearings with Skype conference calls after all; surely menial public consultations are ripe for a bit of light experimentation?
Would some time still get wasted lodging the odd inane status update? Probably. But the truth of the matter is that most legitimate fears could be allayed through simple service customisations: staff only being allowed to log-in via Whitehall-specific accounts with limited privileges, for instance, or access being restricted to times when a consultation is due to take place. Moreover, any half-cut network admin or IT lackey can tell who is gaming instead of opinion grinding, the same way you can tell if someone is checking out the naughty pages. In the long run, the government would do well to develop its own public-engagement network, like it has formulated its own cloud service, the G-Cloud.
One needs only to think back to the nauseating days of the 'just call me Dave' videos to know that political types have been employing the Internet for some time now, and that public can be won over in this sense once they put aside their prejudices. Similarly, businesses are hardly ignorant to the positive uses of social networks, with Microsoft's recent blockbuster acquisition of Yammer – it is thought it will be incorporated into the Office suite in the future - being a clear indication that online communities will soon be as associated with enterprises as they currently are with teenagers and students. So while it's obviously a stretch to expect the Mail's readers to appreciate this natural migration, tech-types and business leaders alike appreciate that if it's good enough for a generally efficient tech giant like Microsoft - not to mention the US government, apparently - then it's certainly good enough for Britain's coalition crew.