Supporting authentic digital engagement

Screenshot of Kevin McGurgan FCO Twitter account
Screenshot of Kevin McGurgan FCO Twitter account

My role as product lead for the Digital Action Plan often involves working closely with senior civil servants to help them become more confident around digital engagement. I’d like to share with you what I have observed to be the main barriers to civil servants becoming authentic digital communicators and how we can overcome them.

Mastering the basics

At its heart, the Digital Action Plan is about giving people the confidence to use digital tools at work to listen, explain and talk with their audiences. Before people can do that, however, they need to feel at ease with the basics of technology.

One of the great things about being from an external organisation is that civil servants, particularly those in senior roles, feel able to ask me for help where they might otherwise avoid doing so out of fear of looking foolish. For example, one person mentioned to me the common problem of struggling to remember passwords for different online services. Recognising this was likely to discourage them doing more with digital, I introduced them to the LastPass password manager, which will take the headache away from accessing digital services.

While I am pleased to be able to help participants with any basic issues they have, I’d like to see organisations provide regular opportunities for staff to learn the basics in a non-judgemental environment. From my time as a Social Media Surgery volunteer, I know informal sessions can be a good way for people with skills to help others. Meetups could be held on a particular theme, such as protecting your privacy and security online, or be of a more free form nature.

Making time for learning

I’ve found time, or more precisely the lack of it, to be a major barrier to civil servants becoming more effective at digital engagement. Not surprisingly, it can be a struggle to carve out time to learn new skills whilst managing a demanding workload.

For example, it’s pretty obvious writing and presenting a paper to the board is going to loom large in somebody’s to-do list and have the potential to put a limit on learning time. With the Digital Action Plan, I try to bridge the traditional divide between training and the day job by encouraging participants to connect their learning goals with real-life projects and tasks. For instance, could a participant use Twitter to inform stakeholders about the forthcoming report, its implications and how they can get involved?

While most participants find they are able to connect their learning goals to forthcoming projects, I believe there is still more we can do. I would like to see closer working between line managers and participants so that there is clear agreement on how digital engagement learning will be built into participants’ workloads in a way that directly supports a team or department’s core objectives.

Valuing boldness

As a trainer, one of the most satisfying parts of the job is seeing people you’ve supported take off and really run with something you’ve introduced them to. Conversely, it’s easy to feel disappointed when people for whatever reason seem to fail to respond to your support or choose not to put what they’ve learned into practice.

In my experience, the people who get the most from the Digital Action Plan are those who are willing to be bold and seize the opportunities available to them. Earlier this month I was impressed when a participant published their first blog post on LinkedIn after previously expressing quite significant reservations over developing their own professional profile online.

At Helpful, I try to encourage participants to be ambitious about what they can achieve and to believe that they have it within themselves to learn new things and to do things differently. I do this by sharing examples of interesting things their peers are doing, such as the Foreign Office’s engaging use of Shorthand Social and showing them that they aren’t the first person to be nervous about blending the personal and the professional in their digital engagement.

The FSA’s Christina Hammond-Aziz’ recent blog post why faceless civil servant is never a good look, makes clear the significant progress the civil service has made on digital engagement but, as with any organisation or sector, there is always room for improvement.

This week, Janet Hughes from the Government Digital Service asked: what if boldness were an explicit value of the civil service? Janet describes boldness as bringing your whole to the situation and demonstrating the values of openness of optimism and a commitment to something bigger than yourself. In doing so Janet could just as easily have been describing the qualities of authentic digital engagement. Ultimately, if we want civil servants to be authentic digital engagers, we must go further in supporting an organisational culture which values and rewards authentic engagement.

Follow me on Twitter @francisclarke