During these last fifteen years, I have only worked for the state for one of them so my experience of being a public servant and social media activist is limited. I have been mostly free to say what I wanted to say. On one occasion when I worked for the Office for Public Management, I wanted to publish an essay challenging target culture. They decided that they would not publish it so I uploaded it to a random website, which is still visible to the this day. That was ten years ago.
I say all this to explain where I am coming from on the issue of whether public servants should be free to blog or tweet (or bleet as my wife describes what I do, sometimes into the early hours of the morning).
I hold it to be self evident that democracy cannot exist without freedom of speech and thought (while accepting that fair rules on slander and libel need to be applied to what is said and published).
Whilst I am appalled by, loathe and despair at some of the sentiments spread by some national newspapers, internet trolls who crave attention and bloggers who delight in scraping the bottom of any passing barrel, they are part of what makes the net free, colourful and vibrant. There is no single version of truth (or humour) in the multiverse.
But to return to the core question: when public servants offer their unexpurgated (and sometimes anonymous) opinions on the direction of government policy, does that enhance or damage democracy?
For me the answer can only ever be that it enhances democracy and moreover is likely to help achieve improved social outcomes to boot. Publishing ideas that challenge (or support) government policy is positive because it:
- Helps citizens make up their mind about whether a policy is working or not, good or not, worthy of their support or not
- Shines a scrutinising light on what government is doing on our behalf
- Adds to(not detracts from) transparency and accountability of how our public money is being spent
- Helps refine and optimise policy and implementation through debate and questioning
- Connects people together so that further debate and research can be coordinated
- Exposes the challengers to be challenged themselves
- Channels dissent and frustration into the open air rather than forcing it underground which may lead to harmful sabotage
- Helps those in power to be on their toes and nibbles away at complacency and insulation against dissent
- Helps leaders (both political and managerial) know the full story (or do they prefer to live in ignorance?)