Sean Boots

Technology, public services, and people. But mostly people.

Principles for blogging as a public servant

Or, how to criticize a thing that you love

If you’re a public servant who is thinking about blogging about your work, you should do it! I say that with more enthusiasm than credibility since I only, well, started a few months ago. Public servants across Canada and around the world have been doing this for years, and I really appreciate how much I’ve been able to learn from other people writing about their perspectives and experiences in government.

Blogging and talking about your work on social media has become a lot more common in the past few years. “Working in the open” has become a shared goal of public servants around the world. As a federal public servant, though, it’s still sometimes hard to know what you are or aren’t allowed to talk about. There’s a few principles that apply pretty generally here:

  • Be non-partisan. In Canada (like in the UK) public servants are non-partisan and politically impartial, and so avoiding statements that promote or criticize politicians, political parties, or their views is important. If something you wrote would make politicians and political staff wonder if you’re non-partisan or not, it’s probably not a good thing to write.

  • Don’t announce things that aren’t public yet. Unless you’re an official spokesperson for your department (in which case you’re probably too busy to write a personal blog on the side) you shouldn’t reveal things that haven’t been announced yet. Your personal blog shouldn’t be the channel by which the public or journalists learn about brand-new government programs, for example. But, if you’re trying a new approach to how you work, or doing some experiment that contributes to an already-announced program, I’d say, go for it. If your team’s work or program was announced on some press release somewhere and no one even noticed, all the more reason to blog openly about it!

  • Don’t publicly criticize the government. This comes from the duty of loyalty that forms part of the values and ethics of the public service, and is related to the non-partisanship principles of loyally implementing the decisions and priorities of the elected government of the day. The typical interpretation is that you should raise concerns internally, and that (outside of situations where the government is breaking the law or risking health and safety) publicly raising direct criticisms of government policies and decisions can be a reason to fire you as a public servant. Your personal blog probably isn’t the best channel for public whistleblowing.

Working in the open, with unbridled positivity only

That last point – to not publicly criticize the government – is probably the most complicated one. Uncertainty around what constitutes public criticism, or where the line is between acceptable and getting-fired-worthy criticisms, is one of the biggest challenges for public servants that want to talk openly about their work.

One of the consequences of this that you’ll see often is how – as more and more federal public servants talk about their work on social media and blogs – the consistent theme is unbridled, relentless positivity. Enthusiastic reactions to meetings. Excitement about upcoming or recent events. Great conversations with colleagues. Reflections on all the good parts of recent work experiences you’ve had.

People that know me know that I am all about unbridled positivity. But there’s a downside to the unstoppable positivity of most public servants’ social media conversations. A few exceptions notwithstanding, we’re not having honest, frank, public discussions about things that are broken within the public service. And let’s be real, there’s a lot of things that are broken. As a public servant, though, it’s hard to know how to talk about these – and in an environment where it’s really hard to get fired, the real possibility of getting fired for a violation of the duty of loyalty is definitely a barrier to having those conversations.

How to criticize a thing that you love

I’m really interested in having these conversations because I really want government to be good. I really love the public service as an institution, and as a vocation. I want our public service to be the best in the world. I don’t think it is today. I want us as public servants to be really, really good at improving the lives and well-being of people across Canada. I don’t think we can do that as well when we don’t have open conversations about what we could do better.

None of this is meant to discourage public servants today who share enthusiastic, positive anecdotes from their work. There’s so much we can learn from things that are going well, and working in the open (on blogs or social media) helps mainstream the concept of public servants talking about their work at all, which is still relatively new to an extent in Canada.

In the spirit of more frank conversations that (hopefully) still don’t get us all fired, here are some principles for criticizing a thing that you love. That thing being, government and public sector institutions. These are just my own principles, but maybe they’ll work for you too:

  • Criticize systems, not people. Don’t single out individual people, tempting though it may sometimes be. Often, people’s behaviour is the result of the environment and incentives that we operate within – the game, not the player. Criticize those environments and structures and incentives, and treat the people within them with empathy and kindness.

  • Avoid routine or instinctive criticisms. Does your colleague write emails in a weird font? Are people from that one team always late for meetings? Criticizing routine things – or criticizing, well, everything – isn’t necessarily the route to fundamental changes in the public service; it’s probably worth saving your social capital for bigger-picture things.

  • Don’t bash small positive steps for not going far enough. In environments where change is hard, it’s sometimes tempting to call people out for making a tiny step in the right direction when a large one seems much more worthwhile. This can happen sometimes in activism and social change communities, and it makes it hard to bring new people onboard to do what they can to make a difference. As a good friend would say, moving a mountain an inch is still worthwhile. Celebrate the small wins, even if they’re just a first step.

The approach I want to champion is: openly criticizing things that are systemically broken, while still acting with the respect and integrity that public servants are meant to embody. I want this blog to be an experiment in doing that. If there are times when it crosses the line, I hope that people will let me know – and that, in turn, this will be a useful way of learning as a community where those lines are. If I can help create space for more people to have open conversations about how to make the public service better, awesome. I have a lot of unbridled positivity for that.