‘I don’t know how to use a computer!’: the stories of our most dangerous public servants
Last month I was invited to Birmingham University to take part in a discussion called ‘✊Democracy #LOL :): digital participation in local governance’ which was hosted by Local Government Studies (INLOGOV). I was invited along to share my stories and experiences of working with local government and community groups in Scotland that are integrating digital engagement into their participatory budgeting (PB) activities.
I shared examples from the past six months of the digital PB project where I have seen very important impact on a public service team or in a community group happen because of their decision to augment their face to face engagement with digital engagement. I also shared examples of things that keep me up at night and send me into a spiral of internal debate.
One of these examples was a story I roll out *all the time* as an illustration of the attitude of public servants to ‘digital’: earlier this year heard a senior civil servant announce in a public forum that she didn’t even know how to take a screenshot so surely ideas about innovative digital solutions for creating better public services would go over her head.
After I went through my slides and stories, we had a group discussion during which I was asked why I seem so frustrated with people in public services who don’t use or want to use digital tools or platforms for engagement. The person asking the question seemed to hear my frustration and my screenshot story as throwing shade at public servants who aren’t willing to jump on a digital engagement bandwagon and burst onto the internet scene to tweet and blog, that I was being a bit cliquey. Fair enough comment, really. I have to hold my hands up and say I don’t always explain things as well as I could, especially if it’s something I’m close to. So here’s a fuller explaination than I managed to spit out on the day…
When someone in public service says, ‘I don’t even know how to take a screenshot’ I hear, ‘I am a security liability with no interest in knowing about modern ways of working.’ It’s no secret lack of computing skills, including understanding various basic practices around safety and security, are low in public sector workforces. In fact I’d argue public services nurture these low skills and send people down a spiral of de-skilling with their outdated browsers, outdated operating systems and messy IT infrastructures…which may have been procured by the senior person who doesn’t know how to take a screenshot. Snake eating tail. Just yesterday Martha Lane Fox published a piece about the lack of sophisticated debate about the internet at a UK government level and the inability of policy makers to keep up with the pace of technological change being issues of national security and one of the most pressing issues of our time. Self-effacing comments about not being able to push a couple of buttons somewhere are no joke.
When someone in public service says, ‘I don’t use social media. No one wants to know what I had for breakfast! *chortle*’ I hear, ‘I don’t have the vaguest interest in understanding how an increasing number of citizens get information or choose to interact.’ The last person you want to let loose on your organisation’s social media is the person who *really* doesn’t want to be using social media. So this isn’t about shading those who choose not to use social media themselves. This is about having an understanding of how social media works, why they are used, what online communities look like and sound like and acknowledging the importance of social media to government for *so* many reasons. Understanding at a higher level means permission for more active or meaningful use of social media over an organisation, including a lift on bans in public services that mean staff sometimes literally can’t see the internet. Because, you know, it’s unsafe (said the public servant who has no real idea what interaction online looks like.) Snake eating tail.
When someone in public service says, ‘My job is so boring. No one would want to read a blog written by me’ I hear, ‘I am not willing to be open, transparent and accountable.’ Issues around confidence and identity are here alongside lack of skill and institutional cultures and behaviours so this one isn’t straightforward. In my years working with public servants, conversations about working out loud and the honest reflection it requires are some of the most difficult- and emotional. The support our public servants need to change their relationships with the public is heavy and it’s not usually coming from inside- external forces are necessary (that’s you and me!)
The conversations I have with public servants when I’m helping them plan digital engagement always start with purpose, resource and goals and it usually catches them off guard. Planning and reflection? But the internet is magic, right? Asking people to consider the why and the how for digital engagement often surfaces anxieties, barriers and systemic problems that mean *generally* public engagement with a view to involvement are not well thought out or very meaningful. It’s a very exposing process. While there is a lot of discussion and rhetoric flying around Scotland’s public sector about ‘digital innovation’ and ‘transformation’, these are really high level and don’t ever really address the live issues closer to the front line. The success of the transformation camp is dependent on the success of the confidence and skills camp. How can we bring these conversations closer together?
Postscript: Several days after I published this, I made a wee edit changing ‘When someone in government…’ to ‘When someone in public service…’ A share on Twitter made me realise I wasn’t being very consistent with language here. Interchanging ‘government’ with ‘public service’ is something I’m forever trying *not* to do so cleaned it up here.