Communication and transparency

The change in the way government communicates with Parliament and the public reflects the changing nature of politics. The public and parliamentarians are demanding more information from the Government – not always successfully. In the Government’s responses to Freedom of Information requests, it is withholding more. Departments are also failing to publish some of the data they are required to produce. However, the Government is increasingly proficient and active at generating its own announcements. Politicians are increasingly turning to social media to get their messages out in the modern world of intense competition to be heard.

Sometimes government is required to respond to requests for information. The Freedom of Information Act allows any member of the public to ask government for information. The first three quarters of 2018 had the highest proportion of requests withheld in part or in full – more than half – since the introduction of FoI in 2005.

Reasons for this include a lack of political support for FoI, the public submitting more requests but departments not having increased their capacity to deal with them, these requests becoming more sophisticated and complex, and government publishing more information proactively.

Parliamentarians can request information via parliamentary questions. They are asking more written questions and being granted the opportunity to ask more urgent questions of ministers in Parliament than in previous years. This increase reflects newly elected MPs looking to make their mark, members scrutinising the Brexit process, and the Speaker’s determination that backbenchers should have the right to scrutinise the Government. As MPs take advantage of these opportunities in the House of Commons, the number of emails and letters they are sending on behalf of their constituents has fallen.

There are categories of departmental information that government has committed to publish, including data about who departments employ, what they spend and who is providing hospitality to their ministers. The UK continues to rank highly in global indices for the availability of open data and there have been some improvements, but departments are still failing to publish some of this information on time or even at all.

Beyond its self-imposed commitments to transparency, the Government can proactively communicate its own messages, through media appearances, publicity campaigns and online. Departments are publishing more on GOV.UK than ever before. There has been an increase in the number of more technical documents like policy guidance published while the number of ‘announcements’ – press releases, news stories and speeches – has fallen since 2015. Departments and ministers are experimenting with social media, with Twitter being the most popular social network.

 

Government withheld more information in response to FoI requests in 2018 than in any previous year

Percentage of Freedom of Information requests withheld by government departments, Q1 2005 to Q3 2018

In the first quarter of 2018, government departments fully withheld information in response to 45% of Freedom of Information requests. In none of the first eight quarters after the Act’s introduction in 2005 did this figure exceed 25%. The percentage of information withheld has increased under every government since. Since Q3 2015, more than half of requests have resulted in all, or some, information being withheld in response.

Reasons for refusing Freedom of Information requests, as a percentage of resolvable requests, Q1 2010 to Q3 2018

The Act lists circumstances in which government can refuse requests: there are 23 exemptions (such as national security or personal information), and departments do not have to provide information that would cost more than £600 to retrieve  (equivalent to 24 staff hours). Departments may also refuse repeated requests and those seen as ‘vexatious’ (defined as likely “to cause a disproportionate or unjustifiable level of distress, disruption or irritation”).

Cost and exemptions are largely responsible for the increase in refusal rates; the proportion of requests declined on cost grounds has risen from 14% in 2010 to 24% over the last year (Q4 2017 to Q3 2018), while exemptions have increased from 15% to 19% in the same period. In practice, repeat requests are uncommon, but requests that officials deem to be vexatious are on the increase, although they continue to represent a very small proportion of overall refusals. The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) is making more use than others of the ‘vexatious’ provision: it dismissed 11% of all resolvable requests as vexatious, compared with an average of 2% across all departments.[1]

Freedom of Information exemptions, as a percentage of each department’s total exemptions, Q4 2017 to Q3 2018Over the past year, the most widely cited exemption was ‘Personal information’, which prevents the disclosure of information on data protection grounds, followed by ‘Information intended for future publication’ and information relating to ‘Formulation of government policy’. The number of requests being fully withheld on the grounds that personal information would otherwise be disclosed has increased from 9% in 2010 to 13% in the last year. Other exemptions that have shown clear increases over recent years include ‘Law enforcement’, ‘International relations’ and ‘National security’.

There are possible explanations for departments granting fewer FoI requests:

  • Withholding rates may be growing because data is increasingly already available to the public. The UK Government scores highly in international comparisons of open data, and the Find Open Data site (previously known as data.gov.uk) hosts entries for more than 46,000 public datasets. Francis Maude, then Minister for the Cabinet Office, expressed his desire in 2012 to “make Freedom of Information redundant, by pushing out so much [open] data that people won’t have to ask for it” (although the two are different – open data is proactively and broadly published at government’s behest; FoI disclosures reactively in response to often much narrower requests).[2] It may be that, with more open data available, FoI requests increasingly seek sensitive information, which government has legitimate reasons to withhold.
  • The nature of requests may be changing. While FoI enables any member of the public to demand information, in practice a successful request can require careful wording and an understanding of what can feasibly be expected. Departments may justifiably decline requests that are vague, and are also likely to dismiss overly complex or expansive demands on cost grounds. An increase in imprecise, speculative or unreasonable requests would therefore help to explain the rise in withheld information.[3]
  • FoI may not be a political priority. Requests have been unpopular with previous prime ministers: Tony Blair said of his decision to introduce FoIs, “I quake at the imbecility of it”, and David Cameron described them as “clutterations” and a “buggeration” to government, establishing a commission to review the process.[4] (The commission chose not to recommend major changes after criticism by the media and campaigning groups.)[5] Without senior political support, there is nothing driving greater openness and no fallout from worsening compliance. Some campaigners have called on the Information Commissioner to take stronger action against departments where information is wrongly withheld.[6]
  • Finally, departments might not have expanded their capacity to respond to FoI requests in line with increasing demand. Since the introduction of FoI in 2005, the total volume of requests being submitted to government has risen considerably. Up to 2009, there were on average fewer than 5,000 a quarter. Numbers then rose steadily until 2013; since then, quarterly requests have averaged around 8,000. Departments resource their responses to FoI in different ways. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which receive the highest volume of requests, do not have a central FoI team but instead use a system of ‘focal points’ across the department that “identify an author in the part of their business which ‘owns’ the information in question. This ensures that FoI responsibility is embedded within the department.”[7] Some departments with central FoI teams have lost staff in recent years; the Home Office currently has 18 staff responsible for handling FoIs, down from 24 three years ago, even though the past year has been among the busiest in terms of number of requests received. At the Department for Education (DfE), the size of the team has increased from five members to six since 2010 – but the number of requests has increased from around 300 a quarter in 2010 to more than 500 in the past two years, and there were nearly 900 at the beginning of 2018.

Percentage of Freedom of Information requests granted in full, Q1 2005 to Q3 2018Some departments are much more open in their responses than others; in the past year the Wales Office, Department for Transport (DfT) and Scotland Office have all granted more than 60% of requests in full (although the Wales and Scotland offices received the fewest requests, with 182 and 256 respectively). By contrast, the Foreign Office, DExEU and Department for International Trade (DIT) granted no more than 31% of requests in full, despite receiving only 1,402, 743 and 568 requests respectively.

The three departments created in July 2016 are releasing the least information: DIT, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and DExEU have granted in full fewer than half of their FoI requests in every quarter since their creation. While DExEU granted slightly more over the most recent four quarters than in the preceding four (22% compared with 18%), it is still the least transparent department in government when it comes to FoI. This may be due to the sensitive information it holds, which might explain why it uses the international relations exemption more than any other department and also makes relatively high use of the exemption for formulation of government policy. However, the Institute for Government has previously noted a more general lack of transparency from this department, and a low FoI response rate could further indicate this tendency.[8]

Some departments formerly good at releasing information are becoming less transparent, such as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG, and its predecessor, the Department for Communities and Local Government), the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). Seven departments – BEIS, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), DExEU, the Treasury, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) – have granted more requests in full in the past year compared with the year before.

 

MPs are demanding more information from the Government

Number of written and oral questions tabled in the Commons, by answering government department, 21 June 2017 to 21 June 2018

Parliamentarians have their own tools to seek information. MPs can table parliamentary questions (PQs) – either orally or in writing – for departments to answer.

The current parliamentary session is due to last for two years, meaning that by the end, the number of written and oral questions asked will be higher than in most sessions, which last for a year. However, focusing on the number of questions in the 12 months since the 2017 state opening of Parliament allows for some comparison with previous one-year sessions.

In total, over this 12-month period, MPs tabled 55,524 PQs. The vast majority – 50,714 were written questions. This represented a 42% increase on the 39,133 written questions tabled in the whole of the previous parliamentary session. As before, departments responsible for delivering key public services – DHSC, the Home Office and DfE – received the highest numbers of questions.[9]

Over the same period, MPs asked a total of 4,810 oral questions. However, as a finite amount of time is allotted for answering oral questions in the House, the number remains broadly constant between parliamentary sessions.

Urgent questions granted in the House of Commons per sitting day, per session, 2001–02 to 2017–19, as at 21 December 2018

If MPs want information from government more immediately – for example, in response to a major national or international event – they can request the opportunity to ask an urgent question (UQ) in the House of Commons, to which a minister must respond orally. The Speaker decides whether to grant UQs.

Between the start of the 2017 parliament and the 2018 Christmas recess, MPs asked 169 urgent questions of ministers: a rate of 0.75 per sitting day, or one UQ every 1.3 sitting days. This is a considerable increase on the 0.5 UQs asked per sitting day in the 2016–17 parliamentary session.

The UQs covered a broad range of domestic and international events, including the Windrush scandal and the political situation in Zimbabwe. Fewer than one in 10 related directly to Brexit, though several were in response to parliamentary concern about information not published by the Government, such as impact assessments of the effect of Brexit on different sectors of the economy.[10]

While the rise in UQs in this session of parliament has been particularly steep, it forms part of an upwards trend since the current Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, took up his role in 2009. The Speaker has been clear that he views UQs as a means to encourage government representatives to go to Parliament and explain their actions.[11]

Percentage of ministerial correspondence answered within target response time, by department, 2010–17

In 2017, the Government received a total of 148,023 letters and emails from parliamentarians, compared to 243,389 in 2010, and 160,935 in 2016. While the volume of correspondence has declined, it remains a key mechanism through which MPs and peers seek information, and in 2017 still exceeded the number of written PQs or FoI requests.

Departments can set their own target time for replying to correspondence, and the average target is 15 days. Since 2016, the number of government departments using the longest target response time – 20 days – has fallen from five to three (DCMS, DExEU and the Foreign Office).

Although a small number of departments had reduced their target response time, 93% of correspondence was answered on time in 2017, compared with 84% in 2010.

No department answered 100% of its correspondence within target in 2017. However, five (the Cabinet Office, Defra, DCMS, the Department for International Development/ DfID and DHSC) had a rate of more than 90%. This meant DHSC and DfID maintained their strong record on response timeliness since 2010. In the case of DHSC, this was despite the high volume of correspondence it received – more than 12,000 pieces, exceeded only by DWP and the Home Office and its public bodies.

MHCLG answered the smallest proportion of its correspondence on time (46%), although the number of letters and emails it received grew by more than a quarter between 2016 and 2017. The Home Office answered just over half (54%) within target; it has the largest mailbag, and the volume of correspondence it received rose between 2016 and 2017. DfE’s timeliness has deteriorated since 2016, despite only a marginal increase in correspondence volume. While BEIS answered more correspondence on time in 2017 than in 2016, its performance remains poor.

The overall decline in the volume of correspondence directed at ministers stands in contrast to the increases in written parliamentary questions and urgent questions. The reason for this is unclear, but it may be that MPs are choosing to make greater use of opportunities for scrutiny in the Chamber of the Commons, in place of letters and emails to ministers.

Taken together, the rise in written and urgent questions compared to the previous session suggests that backbenchers want more information from government, and are more assertive in demanding it. This pattern fits with efforts by parliamentarians to push the Government to release specific information relating to Brexit, such as the Attorney General’s full legal advice on the deal reached with the EU, which led to government being held in contempt of Parliament for the first time.

A restive political environment may contribute to this, as well as an eagerness among newly elected MPs to scrutinise government in the first session of a new parliament. The increase in questions over the past year may also point to the presence of major public policy issues – notably Brexit, which covers many policy areas – and a number of immediate issues, such as the Windrush scandal. However, the latest increase can also be seen as part of a broader upwards trend since the current Speaker was elected in 2009. It is not possible to know whether this has been due to a rise in requests for UQs, or to the granting of a higher proportion of requests – data is not publicly available – but the current Speaker’s desire to “champion the rights of backbenchers” to scrutinise government is likely to be a factor.[12]

 

Departments are still not publishing transparency data on time, but there has been some improvement

In 2010, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, wrote to departments telling them to start publishing certain datasets regularly, including:

  • organograms of their internal organisation (every six months)
  • spending over £25,000 (monthly)
  • hospitality received by ministers (quarterly).

Publication of organograms, as of December 2018Organograms provide information about the structures of different departments. They include the names and salaries of civil servants, as well as their professions and the units within which they work. Departments are required to publish them every six months.

Publication in recent years has become patchy. While all departments published organograms in March 2011, seven years later, just nine did in full (two departments published data for senior staff only). Some have been worse than others: neither Defra nor DHSC has published organograms since March 2016, and neither DExEU nor BEIS has published a full release since they were created in 2016 (though DExEU has published some charts of its senior team, and BEIS a spreadsheet of its senior staff).

Publication of spending over £25,000 releases, as of December 2018

Departments are required to publish details of their spending over £25,000 each month. This data is often published late; fewer than half of the monthly datasets have been published on time since late 2010. However, there has been some improvement: more releases were published on time in the first ten months of 2018 than in the whole of 2017. There is significant variation across departments. Four (HMRC, DfID, DHSC and MoD) published each of their releases on time in 2018. Four (Defra, the Home Office, the Treasury and BEIS) did not publish a single release on time in this period – and BEIS has never published this data on time.

Publication of travel, meetings, gifts and hospitality data for ministers, 2010–18The publication of quarterly data on the hospitality received by ministers has been much timelier. In six of the past eight quarters, nearly all departments have published on time. One of the exceptions was in April to June 2017, due to the general election that year (there were similar drop-offs in timely publication around the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the general election of 2015 and the EU referendum in 2016).

Why is departmental publication of ministerial hospitality timelier than publication of organograms or spending over £25,000? Why has there been an improvement in publication of spending over £25,000? In December 2017, the Prime Minister sent a letter to departments reminding them of their obligations, and the Cabinet Office issued guidance on how to publish transparency data.[13] There is now a transparency data team in the Cabinet Office to provide support to departments. Previous Institute for Government research looking at non-publication suggested that some departments thought they were no longer required to publish (the original mandate dated from May 2010), and that producing the information was difficult, but the Prime Minister’s letter and Cabinet Office support have clearly had an effect.[14] The transparency data team are more involved in supporting the publication of hospitality data than the other datasets (although this does mean that, should a publication date slip, it will affect all departments).

But the fact remains that much of the spending over £25,000 is published late, and many organograms are not published at all. The Institute for Government organised a hack day in 2017 on the value of organogram data.[15] Participants suggested reasons why the Government had not published the data, including departments’ scepticism about the value of the data, the time taken to produce it, and it not being a priority.

Yet knowing who you employ, the internal structures of your organisation, and what contracts you are spending money on, should be basic pieces of management information. It may be that departments have this data but in different forms – with organograms, for example, there are also departments’ own human resources systems, workforce data provided to the Office for National Statistics, and other publications by the department (for example, the monthly workforce management information dataset, another mandated transparency data release). This multiplicity of similar data suggests a great deal of duplicated effort; the difficulties in reconciling all of these datasets, and the inconsistencies within and between them, suggest government departments are not getting the most value out of them.

 

The Government is publishing more on GOV.UK and using social media more

The Government also puts out a stream of its own announcements. Traditionally, this has included politicians appearing on television and radio and writing newspaper articles, and departments and agencies spending millions on advertising campaigns promoting everything from public health[16] to Britain as a trading partner.[17] This reflects the many audiences for what the Government has to say, at home and abroad.

Over the past decade, governments have shifted the publication of announcements and reports online. Thousands of documents are published on GOV.UK each year. At the same time government departments, ministers and officials are getting to grips with social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and finding new ways to use them to communicate with a wide range of audiences.

Government lists two broad types of communication on GOV.UK: announcements and publications. Announcements include narrative pieces such as news stories, press releases and speeches. These highlight the work the Government is doing, on its own terms. In contrast, publications are generally more technical. These include statutory releases such as official statistics, FoI and transparency data, as well as other formal documents such as policy papers, research and analysis, and guidance.

Volume of announcements and publications published on GOV.UK, 2013–18Overall, the current Government is publishing more documents on GOV.UK than its predecessors. This is driven by publications, rather than announcements. The number of official publications remained steady at an average rate of between 36 and 40 per day from 2013 until mid-2017. Since then the Government has been publishing significantly more, releasing nearly 33% more official publications per day than any government since 2013. However, announcements peaked under the 2010–15 Coalition. From 2013 to the 2015 election, the Government was making, on average, more than 25 announcements per day. Under David Cameron’s majority Government and under Theresa May, this number has fallen to around 20.[18]

Purdah – a pre-election or pre-referendum period, when guidance is issued about what departments can and cannot publish to avoid them being dragged into partisan debate can have a significant short-term impact on government communications. During the nearly 40 days of purdah preceding the 2015 election, the total volume of communication on GOV.UK was less than a quarter of the previous 40 days. Similarly, purdah before the 2017 general election and the EU referendum saw one third the volume of communications as in the equivalent preceding period.

The peak for announcements was in the run-up to the 2015 general election, when the Thursday and Friday before purdah began were the two busiest days since 2013, with 108 and 120 announcements respectively. The effect of these ‘take out the trash’ days when government publishes lots of material before a parliamentary recess, seasonal holiday or pre-election period – was less pronounced for the 2017 election, where there was little warning and so departments had less time to prepare announcements in advance.

July 2017, May 2018 and October 2018 have been the busiest months for official publications since 2013. One reason for this increase is the recent rise in publication of ‘guidance’, which was already the largest category of official publication and has roughly trebled in monthly volume since June 2017.

Total announcements and publications for 22 main departments on GOV.UK, 1 January to 16 November 2018

Departments differ in how much they publish, reflecting their different roles and responsibilities as much as approaches to communication. The Foreign Office publishes more communications than any other department because it issues all the speeches made by its ambassadors, as well as press releases for events happening in its missions and embassies.

Unsurprisingly the smallest departments, such as the Attorney General’s Office, and the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland offices, all make fewer announcements than the departmental average. It is more surprising to see some bigger departments, such as DWP and MoJ, in the bottom third of all departments in publishing announcements, although Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) produces more publications than any other department, reflecting differences in departmental functions.

Total volume of items published on GOV.UK for 22 main departments in 2017 and January to November 2018Nearly all departments – 18 out of 22 – published more in the first 11 months of 2018 than in the whole of 2017. In some cases, the rise has been dramatic, for example Defra (104% increase) and HMRC (53% increase). This was largely driven by an increase in the publication of official documents, such as guidance.

 

Social media offers the Government new tools

Government social media accounts and followers, 2018Twitter is the most significant platform for government communications, with more than 12.5 million non-unique followers across the main accounts. Only DWP and MoD have more followers on another platform (Facebook) than on Twitter. In all other instances the Twitter following for departments far outstrips any other platform.

Social media offers a direct and immediate means of communication. More than 80% of the UK’s adult population now own a smartphone, and 62% of all time spent online in 2018 was on phones.[19] It also has the potential to widen access to information, with one in five adults in the lowest socio-economic group going online only using a smartphone.[20]

Some departments have embraced the potential of social media more than others. The Foreign Office and DIT in particular have made a concerted effort to tap into an international audience. The Foreign Office has a Twitter account for every country, and promotes these and the accounts of their ambassadors on its website.[21] Likewise DIT has accounts in multiple languages for most countries around the world, enabling it to promote its messages more easily.

On YouTube, most departments have very few subscribers but large numbers of channel views. For instance, DHSC has just under 3,000 subscribers, but more than 4.3 million channel views. This probably reflects the way that YouTube is used as a hosting service for videos, which departments embed in other web pages (indeed, YouTube is the only way of embedding videos on GOV.UK).[22] Many of the most popular are promoting specific government campaigns, services or other initiatives. An anti- smoking video from DHSC has had almost 3.5 million views, while a DCMS video promoting superfast broadband has had over 2 million.[23,24]

Social media also offers a way for government to project a warmer, friendlier face. The Treasury’s official Instagram account is @treasury_cat, which follows the day-to-day life of Gladstone, its chief mouser.[25] It is the fourth most-followed official Instagram account, behind only those of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Office and MoD.

Not all departments are using social media successfully. As of January 2019, the Wales Office has only just over 1,100 views of all its videos on YouTube, and its most popular video is a three-year-old clip of the then Welsh Secretary, Stephen Crabb, wishing the national rugby team good luck. On Twitter, the Wales Office has tweeted more than four times as often on its English language account (over 9,500 tweets) as on its Welsh one (under 2,500).

Government faces a modern problem when it changes how it is organised: what to do with old social media accounts. The evidence from recent changes, such as the merger of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to form BEIS, or the creation of DIT, suggests that there isn’t a standard approach. While some social media accounts have migrated seamlessly following the establishment, merger or renaming of departments, others have been lost. In other cases, accounts are abandoned without suitable replacements being created.[26]

Departments are also using social media to boost messaging about specific campaigns and services. Defra lists the Instagram account for its Great British Food campaign on its GOV.UK homepage, as well as an official Twitter account giving health advice and forecasts relating to air pollution.[27,28] Similarly, MHCLG has a Facebook page and a Twitter account offering information about its Right to Buy scheme on its GOV.UK homepage.[29]

 

Twitter is the Government’s favourite social media platform

Tweets by 25 main government Twitter accounts, 2008–18 (seven-day average)

All the 22 main departments have a Twitter account, and there are similar accounts for the whole of government (@GOVUK), the Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) and the civil service (@UKCivilService). Combined, these have published more than 225,000 tweets, rising to more than 341,000 when retweets are included. As with more traditional modes of government communication, Twitter is affected by periods of purdah, and by holidays. The most dramatic shift in Twitter traffic was seen at the beginning of purdah before the 2015 general election, when in a space of 10 days the 25 main government accounts combined went from tweeting around 150 times per day, to fewer than 10 tweets daily.

The use of Twitter by government extends far beyond the main departmental accounts, and the total volume of messaging is vast. In addition to official accounts for public bodies and other government organisations, many teams and units within departments have their own accounts to promote specific messages. There are accounts for individual campaigns and issues, and accounts that provide public service broadcasts. There are also the accounts of ministers and officials, some of which are under their personal control, while others are official government accounts.

 

Many individual ministers and officials now use social media

It’s not just departments that are making their voice heard on social media. Most ministers and many senior officials now have a presence. Again, Twitter is the most popular platform.

Number of accounts following Cabinet ministers on Twitter (November 2018)

As of November 2018, Theresa May had around 700,000 followers on Twitter. The most prolific tweeter in the Cabinet was Brandon Lewis, the Conservative Party chairman, who had tweeted more than 37,000 times – nearly 10 tweets a day, far more frequently than any of the 25 main government accounts. He had more than 38,000 followers on Twitter.

No other Cabinet members can rival Theresa May’s Twitter following. Three of her ministers – Chris Grayling, Baroness Evans and Karen Bradley – don’t even have accounts. Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for Digital, started tweeting from an official @DCMS_SecOfState account only after being appointed. This account has only just over 3,000 followers. The combined number of followers of all ministers in the Cabinet, even counting duplicate followers, still falls more than 65,000 short of the 1.9 million people who follow the Leader of the Opposition, @jeremycorbyn.

In addition to her personal account Theresa May also makes use of the official @10DowningStreet account to communicate with the public. This sent its first tweet on behalf of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown at 3.27pm on Wednesday 26 March 2008. Brown did not have his own Twitter account at the time. David Cameron took over @10DowningStreet in 2010 when he became Prime Minister, adding his personal @David_Cameron account in October 2012. Theresa May opened her Twitter account (@theresa_may) on 29 June 2016 to coincide with her leadership bid, using it predominantly as a political messaging tool. She tweets less from @10DowningStreet than either of her predecessors.

The busiest days for the Prime Minister’s Twitter account are reshuffles. Since it was created there have been six days when @10DowningStreet has tweeted more than 30 times in a day, the five most recent of those all being reshuffles.[30] Tweeting ministerial appointments as they happen is a welcome development, giving members of the public access to the most up-to-date information about their government at the same time as journalists. Most of these live-tweeted reshuffles happened under David Cameron, although the January 2018 reshuffle under Theresa May revived the practice.[31]

Cabinet ministers do have a presence on other forms of social media – Theresa May, for example, has 79,000 followers on Instagram. Social media allows politicians to demonstrate a more human side: Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, intersperses photos of visiting troops with pictures of his pet spider and new lawnmower, while Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liz Truss, mixes pictures of official red document boxes and visits to British industry with pictures of birthday cakes and her personal reflections. This has the potential to help the public relate to politicians as individuals, and could strengthen the relationship they have with citizens by creating a more direct link.

Number of accounts following departmental permanent secretaries on Twitter (December 2018)Elsewhere in government there has been a sharp rise in the number of senior officials, such as departmental permanent secretaries or the chairs and chief executives of major public bodies, who are active on social media. At least 14 permanent secretaries have Twitter accounts. The top three most followed are those of the permanent secretaries leading the most international-facing departments, the Foreign Office and DfID, and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill.

Having senior officials on Twitter has some potential benefits for the Government. It can make government seem more open and responsive, with permanent secretaries interacting as well as just broadcasting. It can make them more human and approachable to those they are managing, and allow them to spread important management messages across their department.

But there are also risks. Although there is some central guidance for how civil servants should tweet, practice differs. Some civil servants have Twitter accounts under their own names (for example, @FirstnameLastname) which one would expect them to keep if they change jobs, while others have those more closely tied to their departments (for example, @PermSecDepartmentname), which may pass to their successor when they move on. There could be some impartiality issues – how far should a permanent secretary tweet in support of the policy of the current government or minister, and what would happen if the government or minister changed, leaving behind those tweets under a new regime? Will they be seen as representing a particular party? We may see some new dilemmas as ‘official’ accounts change hands between individuals, and even between different governments.