Reflections on writing a public sector blog

It’s Christmas, and every blogger worth their salt is reviewing the year, or rewriting the lyrics to Christmas Carols. Well, I don’t need to because they’ve already done it better than I ever could! Instead, here are my reflections on my first three months as a blogger.

When I started this blog back at the end of September, I wanted to give a new perspective on FOI – “from the inside”. But not just on FOI, if I’m honest. I also wanted to get across what it was like working in the public sector. Most public sector workers are accustomed to the media take on their activities. And politicians on all sides find it all too easy to blame us when things go wrong (and twist things when they go right if it suits them), and the current political situation has not exactly helped that. I wanted to find a new way to communicate what I really thought, and what the truth behind FOI stories really was.

It may seem odd, but only after I’d started my blog did I start to read other blogs covering issues beyond FOI. Twitter has helped widen my reading. And what have I found? I’m not on my own. There are hundreds of public sector workers blogging about their activities, all with the same motivation – to reach out directly to the public they serve and give a more even handed view of their work.

Through these blogs I have read about civil servants giving up their weekends to improve the accessibility of government data. Local Government workers have exhorted their fellows to go the extra mile in helping the public. And all of this in the face of often unfair media coverage, lacking in context, and the ever present threat of redundancy hanging over their heads.

FOI is the main subject of this blog, but I do want to tackle openness in general, hence the posts on WikiLeaks and Open Government Data Disclosures. And I think that these blogs from public servants (modesty forbids me from including my own) are becoming an important strand in this movement. If Government is serious about engaging with the public and making public services work better, it should avoid discouraging this activity, even if it can’t bring itself to encourage it. So there will be more in the coming year from me on blogging in the public sector.

Another surprise to me is how ready the public (for want of a better word for all those who read and comment on our blogs) is to engage with those of us who feel motivated to put our thoughts online. I have to admit to being nervous as to the comments that I might attract when I started out. But this has not proved to be a problem (save for the inevitable spammers which I spend some time everyday blocking). Comments from all quarters have been largely constructive even if I haven’t always agreed, and have on many occasions helped to shape my own opinions.

And writing the blog and getting comments is challenging my own preconceptions. Last week a volunteer from WhatDoTheyKnow argued that I should have used an exemption when I was reluctant to do so. David Higgerson will be pleased to hear that I am now less cynical about journalists than perhaps I once was thanks to a number of his posts and comments. I’d like to think that that’s because the blog is doing its job – breaking down the barriers between me and the people who make requests – but I think it’s probably a little early to claim that victory.

Through the blog and Twitter, I’ve reached a number of campaigners on various issues. One of them has contacted me recently and asked me to write a brief guide to making responsible FOI requests for their site. What I’ve agreed to do is to write a guide but make it available here so that anyone who wants to can use it. That’s great, isn’t it? That I can work with people who want to make requests to make the process more effective and less confrontational. The possibilities that social networking is opening up are only beginning to become clear to me.

Thank you to all of you that have read this blog in the last three months, and especially if you’ve commented. I hope you’ve found it interesting, and that you continue to do so in the coming year. I’m certainly looking forward to pulling my cloak, mask and lycra leggings back on in the new year, but in the meantime, have a wonderful Christmas and see you back here in 2011!

No comments

  1. Hello FOI man, thought you’d chuckle at this request I spotted on our council’s disclosure log:

    http://is.gd/j3DZB

  2. And thank you for writing your blog! It is much appreciated. Have a good Christmas!

  3. Hudfather says:

    Are you (& other public sector workers) really reaching out to the public, or is this essentially business to business networking? I’m curious, since I feel that if I wasn’t in the same line of work I would have no idea that ‘public sector bloggers’ existed.
    I see that you note this:
    the public (for want of a better word for all those who read and comment on our blogs)
    and wonder if you have any further thoughts on this. I guess if more than a fraction of the requests were from the ‘public’ then this would make a difference.

  4. DBD says:

    for this blog and as a practioner of the dark art (FOIA & Public Sector) i would like to thank you for a first class blog and make me feel like i too am not alone….

    p.s. going to be a great 2011 in local gov for our trade?