Number 10 Downing Street gets social

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez February 26, 2014
The Prime Minister's office is transforming Whitehall coms into a democratic, digital endeavour 

It's easy to think of political offices in the UK government as being filled with grey-haired Etonian types who still have assistants type them up emails before hollering at their press office, “Who has said what about me on that Twatter?!”. Whilst that is likely still true for some, for a number of months a digital revolution has been occurring within the depths of Whitehall. This isn't just thanks to the very well established Government Digital Service (GDS), which diginomica has been following closely, but has also extended to the Prime Minister's office at Number 10 Downing Street.

Downing St
Anthony Simon, the head of digital communications for the Prime Minister, explained to delegates at this year's Technology for Marketing Conference in London that he is working to boost the digital capabilities within his department, as he believes that if government doesn't transform for the age of the internet, then it will struggle to play catch up at a later date.

There has been plenty of examples over the past year or so as to how government is trying to overhaul its departments to create agile, digital teams that can build new platforms for use by the public – which diginomica recently discussed in detail with the government's Chief Technology Office, Liam Maxwell.

However, Simon believes that digital can also be used by departments to better communicate politics to the general public, where he believes that social platforms, such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, are far more engaging and democratic platforms to distribute content than relying on the national media.

“We use social media channels to engage with people as deeply as we can, and fortunately we have huge amounts of followers, as there is always a lot of interest in the Prime Minister of the UK,” said Simon.

Influencing via social platforms

The Number 10 Downing Street Twitter account has a massive 2.5 million followers, which gets so much engagement, according to Simon, that his team cannot dedicate resources to reply to people. Whilst Prime Minister David Cameron also has some 200,000 followers on Facebook and is a regular blogger on LinkedIn. Simon believes that these social platforms vary in their scope and how they should be used, but are all great ways to connect with the public outside of traditional communication channels. 

David Cameron Facebook

“Twitter is best for breaking news, it's very powerful in that respect. Facebook is a much more emotional tool, whilst LinkedIn is a high quality platform to engage with businesses,” he said. 

“We can usually engage with about 4 million people a week. That's a very useful tool when talking to marketers and press officers, because if we are reaching that many people then that's higher than pretty much any newspaper circulation in the UK. I would encourage you to look at your own stats and make comparisons with other means of communication.”

Downing Street has been most successful with its Twitter account, where it now has the highest followers per capita of the population than any other government in the world – followed by Chile. Simon said that a lot of the countries excelling at digital communications are those that you would not expect, which he believes is driven by the need to succeed using cheaper tools, such as those found online.

“Some of the best countries at doing this stuff are not the countries that you would expect – because they don't have a huge amount of funding, they are able to turn that to their advantage and are doing it out of necessity. We try to get ourselves into that mindset of what can we learn from these people, we shouldn't just throw money at things.”

Is the press release dead in the age of Twitter? 

Number 10 has also taken to breaking mainstream, front page news on social networks, which Simon believes is the future of media communications. For example, the most recent Cabinet reshuffle was first shared on Twitter,  rather than being shared via press release to a select few journalists.

David Cameron Twitter
“What I've been trying to do is to get civil servants within government to think is, why is the press release the best way to do things and the common means of communication? If you think about it the press release pre-dates TV – essentially its the same process, it's just been modernised over the years with email. I'm trying to get government to do a fundamental re-think of how we communicate with people and we practice what we preach in the Prime Minister's office. We aren't afraid of using social media.

“It's incredibly democratic, everyone gets it at the same time. It's engaging and it's very fast. Another example is that when we tweeted a photo of one of the first Cabinet meetings after the reshuffle, instantly that was on Sky and BBC news.”

He urged people not to be scared....

“You hear a lot people asking about the risks: what happens if I tweet the wrong thing at the wrong time? 

“But what are the risks of not doing this stuff? If we are there in ten years time and we are still sending press releases to people, where will be then?”

Use analytics to figure out when you're being annoying 

According to Simon, Number 10 Downing Street relies heavily on analytics to figure out exactly how it is performing across its social platforms. Simon wants to know exactly what content his teams are sharing and how that content is either exciting people, or turning them off.

He said that it is very easy for government to just go into 'broadcast mode' and push out as much stuff as it possibly can and hope for the best. However, Simon believes that without analytical insight into how the public, or your followers, are engaging with your posts, then you can't properly interact with them on a level that is beneficial to your organisation.

“Analytics and evaluation is very important to us, we look very closely at the statistics. Even if you are using a free tool it's amazing how much value you can get from that. You can very quickly tell the kind of stuff that is interesting people and the kind of stuff that isn't. Where are people getting fed up? 

“We find that days that we get the most amount of followers to our channels are also the days we lose the most amount of people, but as long as we are gaining more than losing then that's fine. We always try and take time to look through this to try and decide if we do that bit of activity again, how would we do it again.”

Although he did warn that companies shouldn't obsess over the analytics, Simon did suggest that it is useful to have at least one person within the organisation monitoring the data, assessing the long term goals and objectives for social.

“Don't become a slave to it, don't chase fans for the sake of it. But it's useful to assess the level of engagement that you're getting, the level of interest.

“We also have an analyst on the team and I would say that at times its incredibly valuable to have someone in-house. Yes you can go to agencies but having someone looking at your data over the long term and understanding what you are trying to achieve is useful.”

Don't have digital specialists, just 'be' digital

One interesting point that Simon highlighted, which I'm hearing more and more (see the Maxwell interview, he said the same thing about GDS) is that doesn't do a great deal of good having just a specialist team of digital experts that know the ins and outs of everything, whilst the rest of the organisation lives in the digital dark ages.

He believes that it is important to bolster the digital capabilities across the board to see real benefits. In fact, Number 10 and the Cabinet Office have done a 'digital audit' to find out exactly where these gaps in capability exist.

“We have got great digital specialist teams around government, but actually we want everyone to be digital. 

“As long as we have specialist digital teams that are exclusively digital, I think we will never get that cultural change. We need everyone to be thinking digital. When you find somebody with a traditional mindset that suddenly gets it, that's incredibly powerful.”


It's encouraging to see some of the digital work going on in government – although far from perfect, there are some good examples of digital leaders attempting to overhaul old practices. I particularly like how Simon spoke about sharing information on social as being a 'democratic' way of distributing content. Although he's probably being a bit idealistic, given the number of sign offs that probably have to take place for every single tweet sent, it's still good to hear that people within Whitehall want to head in that direction.

His and Maxwell's point about embedding digital into the skills of all of those working across government is also encouraging and something that needs to be pushed harder – politicians and civil servants need to be wise to the fact that generations coming through are going to use digital first, rather second, and government won't be able to get away with not having the tools in place. Get those skills now, rather than attempting to catch up at a later date.

However, given numerous reports about the digital failings in government in recent months, this is likely to be a greater one than Simon is letting on...

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