Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Social Media in Public Sector HR (talking to Graham White, Westminster Council)


  Today’s big event in the Social Media Week London programme is: How is the public sector transforming communication using social media with a broad range of audiences and what's next?


One very good example of how public sector bodies are doing, or at least can do, this is Westminster City Council.  I recently talked about the experience there with their HR Director, Graham White.  These are my notes on the conversation (not necessarily his exact words):


Early adoption

We started by discussing the initial introduction of social media at Westminster, using a Sharepoint based platform to support engagement of staff around a cross-Council pay review (see this article from People Management last year).

I asked what had made Westminster’s experience a success, when many organisations have actually struggled to develop much in the way of community or conversation. Graham said that for him, take-up is to do with the organisational culture, and whether people are openly engaged. People are naturally avid readers, hence the power of the medium - although you do need to build confidence of people who have never gone to print before. He also suggested not worrying about the number of comments but focusing on the numbers of people looking at the sites.

It helped Westminster that had a new CEO who was enthusiastic about getting the workforce on side, believing that the way they treated customers, and treated each other, was critical to the Council’s success, and therefore wanted to know what they were thinking. People have a right to have their say and provide different opinions. So Westminster developed a programme called ‘You Said – We Did’ which was very powerful. Staff started to understand that if they said something it would be accepted and that the organisation would do something about it.


Ongoing approach

I also asked about the combination of ‘bottom up’ with ‘top down’ approaches that was described in the CIPD’s case study. Graham confirmed that this was still Westminster’s strategy but that out of these, it’s the inputs from, and conversation between, staff that’s been most useful. Social media has given Westminster the ability to never have ‘empty space’ – conversation is always taking place. Even the predefined topics are really just prompts to help get people thinking. And the prompters ask – if this isn’t the real issue, tell us what is.

They also allow an unfettered debate. In the early days, the conversation was governed by editors. But doing this didn’t help – individuals are used to expressing themselves freely in their personal lives so they didn’t feel the managed approach was that useful. So Westminster has unregulated much of what they do with social media – and the level of communication is now much more real. It’s helped developed trust, and confidence in the message, and this grows all the time.

Doing this has required their managers and staff to get out of the box. They now have video blogs just about every week from different senior managers who would have never considered being video’d talking about their business and what their plans are.


Latest developments

I asked how the use of social media had developed at Westminster over the last year. Graham explained that the use of social media had accelerated. It’s like a volcano, he said – once you start using it you see more benefits on an almost weekly basis.

The UK’s public sector is going through the most austere period for the last 50 years. Westminster has taken out 300 jobs and is about to remove another 200. Staff are feeling afraid, nervous and uncertain. So social media has been a critical tool – one of a small number of critical tools – that has helped the Council hold onto its staff, and helped them feel as secure as possible and be well informed. And Westminster is now integrating all of their communications with 2.0 media tools, forums etc so that staff can be better engaged.

And life goes on – not every debate is about the difficult future in the public sector. People post on things which are important to them – asking what to name their dog or who stole their milk. And the Council doesn’t interfere with this.

Westminster can see the impact of their use of social media in the fact that most people leaving the Council feel they have been fairly treated, and where there have been appeals and litigation the evidence has also suggested that they have been more than fair. Plus the unions are working alongside the Council’s management to help reduce the number of people who need to leave and how this is managed, as well as helping to pass on information to members, rather than screaming for strikes.

Westminster is now using social media for attracting future employees as well. They’ve introduced social media pre and post the induction programme too so that applicants can view warts and all interviews with staff and get a feel about what it’s like to work for the Council before they actually start. And social media has been used to support other activities, for example Council wide recognition programmes.

They’re also using the tools to support the current borough mergers – implementing a tri borough forum site for staff from across the three Councils to use any technology to see what the views of other staff are, what’s topical, what people are commenting on.


Culture change

Although Westminster’s initial objective for using social media was simply to get people engaged (initially around the pay review) they have seen other benefits since then. One has been a change in Westminster’s culture - Graham noted that 5 years ago no-one would have thought the Council would have allowed its staff to say anything other than how great things are at Westminster.

I asked about whether the use of social media had helped develop better relationships between employees too, helping to bring the diverse parts of the Council together as one organisation. Graham confirmed that, in his view, it had (although again this wasn’t the original objective) and that this was becoming increasingly important now. Previously, Councils have operated with some major silos and little integration within one organisation. But the Big Society and the importance of community involvement is removing the idea of silos. So for example, Westminster is creating new central support teams bringing together different functions into one place.


Lessons for other organisations

Graham has concerns about organisations that try to control these sites very tightly as it shows they have a level of mistrust in their workforces. In his view, you don’t need to control it if you’ve got values and these are integrated into everything that you do.

We also discussed the relevance of Westminster’s experience for other Councils. Graham comes from the private sector but he’s not one of those who advocate that everything in the private sector is great and everything in the public sector is awful. He’s seen to many great private sector people fail spectacularly in the public sector for that. But there is a problem in the speed of change and aptitude for change. So the standard responses of absorb and neutralise every new opportunity – and to confirm why you can’t do something new – has got to change. The recession isn’t helping – people are using this as the next excuse to delay change. The Public Sector needs to change if the general population isn’t going to continue seeing managers in the sector as boring old farts!

I finished the conversation by asking whether, if Westminster weren’t already using social media, would they start now? Graham confirmed that they absolutely would.


Thanks very much to Graham for speaking to me about this.


Public sector / other organisations that want to gain some of the same benefits of Westminster may want to check out:

  • Employee Voice, the social ideas system provided by Organised Feedback, the sponsor of this blog, which is already busy working on a range of Council and other projects.
  • My posts on Enterprise 2.0 on this and my other blog.  Also note my webinar on HR 2.0 on 15th March.  Or contact me to discuss how I can support you to develop the sort of culture Graham describes.



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  • jon  [dot] ingham [at] strategic [dash] hcm [dot] com



  1. Hi Jon

    Interesting post. I do wonder, however, what exactly was done in social media terms at Westminster. It is interesting to hear Graham's view, but apart from the sharepoint example, i cant see any reference to any real social platforms or initiatives!

    Despite saying:

    "Graham explained that the use of social media had accelerated. It’s like a volcano, he said – once you start using it you see more benefits on an almost weekly basis."

    there is no evidence from your discussion with him re actual tools used and outcomes. Lots of talk about initiatives - 'bottom up top down' for example - but these are statements that have been made since the dawn of time.

    I would be very interested in what actual tools they have used and how open - i.e SOCIAL - the output from these tools are.

    It might just be the way its reported, but it seems to me that there is very little evidence at all of Westminster being social apart from Graham saying they are!

  2. Thanks Gareth.

    I'll respond on outcomes first, then tools.

    Graham sees the main outcomes being the fact that they've taken 300 people out of the organisation in a fair way - that works for me.

    Re tools, yes, we didn't discuss this much. Mainly because the technology is all provided by Graham's IT colleagues. I didn't include this bit of my conversation but Graham did talk about how easy IT had made using the technology - making it seem ordinary. And I think that's very positive. To me, SOCIAL needs to be about behaviours not tools, and that's what the conversation focused on.

  3. Surely the right behaviour is only the result of the right tool?

  4. Well yes, to a large extent. I didn't mean that the tool/s isn't / aren't important. I agree with your point, the right tool can make a great deal of difference in enabling the right behaviour. It's just that I think that it's the behaviour which results which is most important.


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