Group chat an indispensable tool within Whitehall

Group chat services can make civil servants more efficient by reducing email overload. If government does not embrace them, it will lose out

Officials are slaves to their inboxes. So why  –  if the whispers are to be believed – is the Cabinet Office planning to kill off something could loosen the chains?

For most civil servants, office life means an intimate relationship with Microsoft Outlook. Outlook is the British Leyland of email clients. As a piece of software, it is the embodiment of That’ll Do. It’s not terrible, just irksome. At the end of a working day I would often find myself spending an hour filing away email in various folders. These were the hours where the office lights would switch into motion sensitive mode, where I’d have to push back my swivel chair to prove the room still contained signs of life. Click and drag. Click and drag. Push back chair. Pull back to desk. Click and drag.

I knew if didn’t do this, I would never again find emails that I needed later amongst the hundred or so that arrived every day. Google Mail may have its imperfections, but I can forgive it almost anything for having a search function that works.

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Fed up with email busywork, some parts of the civil service have been turning to instant messaging services like Slack to help reduce the clog. For the uninitiated, Slack is a group chat service. It is perfect for short exchanges with multiple voices. It is also the ideal place for those ‘not quite work’ conversations – who fancies going to the park for lunch, requests for tea, reminders about all-staff meetings –  all the chatter that normally gets sent out in those productivity-killing group emails.

The other advantage of Slack is that it is much better at circumventing government’s boundaries. Most government email systems have departmental borders; the address book rarely goes wider. Slack makes it trivial to bring people from multiple organisations into the tent. This is excellent news for cross-departmental teams. It also makes life much easier for specialists thinly scattered across government to communicate and share war stories. Many groups  –  user researchers, data scientists, designers  –  have leapt at the opportunity.

Used properly, Slack and other open, web-based tools like it, generally cut email traffic, increase productivity, support specialist professions and expose you to a whole world of gif animations you’d had never previously dreamed of. And if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to. What’s not to like?

Plenty, apparently. Parts of the Cabinet Office are reportedly terrified that Slack messages may be subject to FOI requests, just like email. These transcripts could reveal that horrifying truth that civil servants occasionally spend time discussing non-work topics. As a consequence, or so the rumours have it, Slack and other open internet tools like it will have go, or at least have their use curtailed to the point of irrelevance. The alleged risk of political embarrassment is simply too great.

It is inconceivable to me that thousands of official hours spent more productively could possibly be of less value than avoiding the fall-out from one appalled Mail Online piece complaining that more than 30 civil servants have shared a gif of The Rock doing something awesome. Call me an irresponsible millennial, but that is just mad.

There are two interpretations of why this is kind of retrenchment is happening. Neither are heartening. Both offer evidence of the civil service clearly failing to become an effective, modern place to work.

The first interpretation is that this is simply the flailing response of fearful bureaucratic dinosaurs in cognitive disarray. They don’t like the internet, they fear the unknown, they still print off email. If we ban it or smother it with rules and policies, all this will go away.

The second and more malign perspective, is that these officials understand what Slack is about. They just believe that such openness is intrinsically bad. Any productivity gain is of secondary importance to minimising a tiny political risk. But it is this disproportionate attitude that actively encourages risky behaviour to happen  –  using personal email accounts, for example  –  because the official channels are so broken.

Even worse, perhaps, is the realisation that the officials closing the door on the faint chinks of Whitehall openness simply don’t believe their colleagues are capable. They don’t trust them to use simple communication tools without screwing something up. They don’t trust them to make a sensible judgement about risk. Organisations without trust are empty vessels. They can’t do anything. Generally, they die.

If it does happen, closing down Whitehall’s use of open Internet tools is a big mistake. It will have consequences. The exodus of Whitehall’s progressive and creative employees  –  the ones combating a monoculture – will accelerate as they find their colleagues hold them in contempt for trying something new. Good luck with hiring them back.

Now is not the time to cut some slack.

Andrew Greenway is a former senior civil servant now working as an independent consultant. His civil service roles included deputy director of data analysis and horizon scanning at the Government Office for Science, and a programme manager working on digital projects for the Cabinet Office

Colin Marrs

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