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The UK government has dulled the glamorous sheen of Web 2.0 by pledging guidelines on how civil servants should exploit use social media for developing policies and getting their messages out to the public.

The Cabinet Office has published an Interim Progress Report on its information strategy, carried out by Tom Steinberg and Ed Mayo, which details Whitehall’s efforts to “get” social media in its efforts to communicate with we the people.

The interim report’s appearance coincided with the setting up of a Power of Information Taskforce – which will include Steinberg – to flesh out the strategy and which was revealed in a speech by Tom Watson, MP, Labour’s minister for transformational government.

In his speech, Watson argued that freeing up data “will allow us to unlock the talent of British entrepreneurs” while “engaging people – using the simple tools that bring them together – will allow the talents of all our people to be applied to the provision of public services”.

Watson promised the COI and the Cabinet Office would “produce a set of guidelines that adheres to the letter of the law when it comes to the civil service code but lives within the spirit of the age”.

We think this means Civil Servants need an approved way to dip into sites like mumsnet to share their wisdom on, for example, how to claim maternity benefits. We presume it doesn’t mean putting in place a bureaucratic procedure to ensure that all civil servants Wikipedia edits on Avril Lavigne have been signed off by the Cabinet Office and Number 10.

Watson said draft proposals would be ready for the taskforce by the end of this week.

Government also needed to adopt social media, Watson argued. “Whitehall is arguably Britain’s most important knowledge factory,” he said, “but we’re using out of date tools.” So, it would appear Sir Humphrey and pals will be forced to thrash out policy and career paths over blogs, wikis, forums and shared workspaces instead of over the port and cheese board.

Watson also pledged to overhaul the way information produced by government bodies, for example regulatory information or Ordnance Survey mapping data, is disseminated and charged for. “There has been a lively debate about whether the overall benefits to the economy and society are better served by giving the data away at marginal cost.” He said he had asked the Treasury and BERR to help build arguments in this area.

More disturbingly, perhaps, Watson reminisced about how hard it used to be for “any community organiser or activist to “get people together to do something”. He recalled how he spent his formative years in “endless hours of turning the handle of a manual duplicating machine whilst my dad fermented [sic] revolution in the pub.”

He went on to claim that “social media has removed the requirement for my son to turn the handle for his dad. It allows people to organise a demonstration or a lobby at a single click, with global effect.”

Which is funny, as we’d never thought organising spontaneous demonstrations was part of the government’s remit. ®

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