Civil servants in bowler hatsI spent an interesting hour in the company of a long-serving colleague today, as part of a project we’re doing to look at the baseline skills and awareness of social media in the organisation. Peter (not his real name) first worked in the Department for Education in the late 1960s, and painted me a picture of what life was like:

“A letter would come in, and would go to the Registry. There were three sets of files: Policy, Premises and Correspondence. The Registry folk would work out which set of files the letter belonged with, and file it. Then I’d receive the file, together with a note about the letter. All the information about the matter would be kept in the file. Sometimes, if the file related to a school that had been established for decades, the file would be enormous. So they would send me a form asking which portion of the file I needed, and I’d send that back to them in the docket, and then back would come the file. I’d read the letter, maybe telephone a colleague to check something if I needed to – bearing in mind the cost of telephone calls – and then I’d write my response in longhand and give it to the typing pool. It would come back within 24 hours, and I’d check it. If corrections were needed, I’d send it back and have it redone. And then the letter would go out.”

I’m sure in some ways the basic process of civil service work is much the same today – I remember the manila registry files myself from when I started, just five years ago. But it made me stop and think about the scale and pace of change. Twenty years ago, few civil servants would have regularly worked with a computer. Ten years ago, email would have been a novelty for most. Now, we’re wondering why it’s seeming so tough to embed a blogging culture amongst a workforce of whom over 30% (PDF) started work in the 1970s and 64% of whom were filing their first dockets before Tim Berners-Lee’s vague but exciting idea was even conceived.

Douglas Adams was right:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn 35 is incredibly exciting and creative and, given opportunity, you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really

Later in the day, between spells of digital docket-filing, I stumbled across the Civil Service values, namely integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. We live in a performance-driven world, where it seems everyone is judged on results and targets achieved, deadlines and service agreements delivered. The what, not the how. And yet those values describe a different type of organisation: one in which the credibility and trust of the public rest at least as much in the processes it follows as in the results it produces. Rigour, transparency, independence. Curiously, I think social media, with its potential to expose organisations to scrutiny from passionate outsiders can help deliver as much on these process objectives as on the delivery ones. So maybe we shouldn’t just make the case for the adoption of social media by government from the perspective of quicker/faster/cheaper but also argue the potential for greater transparency, scrutiny, reflection and independence.

I think that’s one for the registry file.

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Lovely post. You can’t demonstrate you’re integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality in isolation. You need to do it in a cupel of circumstances, when you are working on something or talking to someone.

The conversations tied up with the social web are ideal environments to test and take pride in those qualities. It is actually a place where the civil service can show of its hard fought for qualities and reinforce public trust.

The pace of technological change is less an barrier to this than attitudes to the civil servants relationship to the rest of “us”.

Really nice story, and brilliant quote from Douglas Adams. I only really looked at whatdotheyknow for the first time this week, and think it has exactly the potential you attribute to it.

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