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Mixed reactions as civil service told to use Facebook for public consultations

British civil servants should be employing popular websites like Facebook when they sound out public opinion during consultations, according to a letter issued to departmental chiefs.

Sir Bob Kerslake, installed as the latest Head of the Civil Service in November 2011, has written to his subordinates to instruct them to make sure staff members are able and encouraged to interact with the public on social networks, according to a Daily Mail article published over the weekend.

Civil service departments have until September to alter their security settings to allow access to the sites, with officials working on public consultations also being encouraged to use Twitter.

Sir Bob is a prominent advocate of social networking and its deployment for government purposes. Earlier this year, he hosted a live webchat on Facebook aimed at recruiting new graduates to Whitehall.

"I am keen to use social media to engage on a range of important issues, including civil service reform – indeed I see this move towards increased use of social media as a key part of how the civil service is reforming," he wrote in the Guardian at that time.

Despite being scarcely a day old, the new information has already attracted fierce criticism, with one senior official terming it "completely mad" and venturing that it could lead to civil servants chatting to friends online at the taxpayer's expense.

"It's a license for civil servants to mess about all day on Facebook. If everyone does personal Facebooking for just 10 minutes a day, that will cost taxpayers millions of pounds a year in lost man hours," the anonymous person said.

Another source close to the issue was quoted by the Mail as angrily opining: "Thirty days holiday plus extra "privilege" days off, flexitime, every Friday off thanks to compressed hours, huge pensions and now unfettered access to Facebook – it's an easy life being a civil servant. The waste of hard-earned taxpayers' money is a disgrace."

However, not everyone is reacting so rabidly.

"There's no reason why there shouldn't be a Facebook page for every consultation. It would seem to be a way of engaging with the world outside of Whitehall," said Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative select committee chairman.

"But it has obviously got to be for the purposes of government and not for personal use," he added.

A further concern is that the new plans could pose a security risk for Whitehall as it tweaks its firewalls to grant permission to the sites.