Dafydd Vaughan has produced an interesting data rich analysis and reflection on the state of UK digital government blogging. On the face of it the picture is gloomy: the rate of blogging has sharply decreased, and entire blogs are moribund. If you start – as he does – from the principle Make things open: it makes things better that looks like bad news. It does though prompt three questions: what’s actually happened, does it matter – and is the data carrying a slightly different message?
One reason there may be less government blogging is that there is less blogging going on in general. More interestingly, blogging has migrated. Medium didn’t exist before 2012, but has seemed to soak up an increasing amount of the blogging capacity of people who work in government. The weeknote phenomenon was unknown until relatively recently. And it’s hard to argue that there is no insight into the ways of digital government in the week of the publication of a post of the calibre of Will Myddelton’s magnificent account of his mistakes, to take just one example of a higher order of openness.1
But separately, and rather more heretically, it’s worth asking whether all those blog posts had the significance being ascribed to them. Certainly, things were more open. But did that make them better? Dafydd’s post ends with a persuasive list of reasons why being open is good, but they are perhaps more about promoting visibility and understanding than about the benefit of the thing being blogged. In other words, the thing made more open is not necessarily the same as the thing made better – though that’s certainly not an argument against doing it.
There’s another reason worth considering too. GDS – and digital government generally – have always been political, but they haven’t always been politically contentious. But that was never guaranteed to last, and indeed there were good reasons to expect it not to last.
Writing about this more from a policy perspective a few years ago, I came up with this two by two – from technical to political on one dimension and from process to substance on the other. The point was that the further you move upwards and to the right, the harder it is for civil servants to be completely open in real time about what they do. In the sense I am using it here, GDS blogging – and government digital blogging more generally – has been predominantly in the lower left quadrant, where being open is most straightforward. That might be changing, for two reasons. The first is that, as GDS moves beyond the forming and infrastructure stage of its life, its work might naturally be moving towards the trickier areas of the matrix. The second is that the upper right quadrant might be expanding. It can be hard to remember now how apolitical GDS was perceived to be when it started, to the extent that it was worth writing a post pointing out that digital is political. The more GDS is institutionally a matter of political contention, the more openness will tend to be constrained.
You don’t have to think that’s a good thing of course. But to the extent that it’s right, there is a real risk of a vicious circle coming in to play. Dafydd notes that GDS is facing growing public criticism and advocates returning to greater openness as part of their response. But I suspect that it is precisely the fact that GDS is operating in a more contentious environment which causes the reduced openness. Breaking through that isn’t just a matter of more bravery by GDS, but much more fundamentally would depend on thinking differently about how a politically neutral civil service operates in a modern digital world. That is only incidentally about digital subject matter. As I concluded in my 2013 post:
Even if we were to take away the question of political alignment there is still a much more universal question of organisational alignment. Organisations which allow and encourage their employees to think aloud about their employer’s business and its strategic direction are rare oases of self-confidence. Other than a few licensed mavericks (who tend to be smart enough not to bite the hand which is feeding them), that is just not how organisations work. Ending the political neutrality of civil servants wouldn’t stop the secretary of state being the boss.
So my pragmatic view is that starting towards the bottom and the left of the matrix makes good sense. Let’s encourage people to build up confidence, experience and good practice there, moving up and to the right over time. For the reasons I have outlined, the top right corner is much more difficult territory. But if we stop to solve those problems now, we risk getting completely bogged down.
This blog has just passed its 13th anniversary of going public. I suspect the pattern of post intensity wouldn’t be far off the shape of the curve Dafydd has identified for government digital blogs. It’s not going to go away or – I hope – fall silent, but there are many things which won’t now be written about because they have already been written about and there is no strong reason for writing them again. Perhaps that too is part of the wider explanation – there is less that needs saying because there is more that’s been said.