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May 10, 2013

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May 10, 2013

Blogging in big bureaucracies round two: the view from the World Bank

May 10, 2013
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Had a useful discussion with the World Bank’s social media team this week, off the back of Tuesday’s post on the struggles that the UN seems to bedog_blog_cartoonhavingin getting its people blogging (actually, the comments on that post suggest there are lots of UN blogs, but most of them seem to be outside New York).

How, I asked, has the World Bank apparently cracked it, with 300 bloggers on 32 separate blogs?

Jim Rosenberg, head of the team, argued that this all dates back to 2010, and the World Bank’s broader shift to an open access policy – a default position in favour of external publication, which is slowly gaining ground in Oxfam, but seemingly struggling to get much traction in the UN. Jim characterised the basic message as ‘if you’re good enough to talk at a conference, you should be able to write a blog post.’

The team distinguished various kinds of blog – ‘comms blogging’ to broadcast the Bank’s messages; sectoral blogging, targeting particular demographics such as youth, and ‘community of practice’ blogging for peers on themes such as education or governance (where I have a regular slot).

The discussion revealed the ‘blogging culture’ as an emergent phenomenon, unevenly distributed across the Bank. A crucial part in spreading the culture was the success of early adopters such as Shanta Devarajan and Michael Trucano. But there are still ‘dark zones’, often determined by the culture of a particular unit, or the attitude of its boss.

The Bank has tried to put incentives in place, eg including blogging as a performance objective, but it is uphill work. Many academic disciplines still disapprove. Many Bank staff are still risk averse and reluctant to upset people, especially their bosses. As a result, there are few younger bloggers, and the space is dominated by the senior experts (like Shanta). These celebrity bloggers are great advocates for blogging and very hard to rein in, and so created space for bloggers, but their very status is also inadvertently inhibiting new entrants. ‘No-one under 40 blogs at the Bank’, one staffer told me at another meeting – many of them are on short term contracts and don’t want to endanger their chance of a permanent job. Tricky.

Bloggers described a three tier risk management approach, which is very similar to my own:

–          No go areas: so sensitive that blogging on them will just start a debilitating fight. Not worth it.

–          ‘Professional courtesy’: run drafts past issue leads and experts to correct mistakes and avoid fights

–          Let it flow: low risk areas, just go for it.

mike-lynch-blog-cartoon-03_thumbAs to the comparison with the UN, some reckoned  that, while the Bank has a lot of government staff looking over their shoulders, the UN system is even worse and ‘more political’. They also felt that the Bank bloggers are often recognized experts, who are leading figures in global communities of practice, and that status to some extent insulates them from internal pressures.

One of the key differences is that the Bank has worked hard to sort out its comms governance. Who can start an official twitter account? Who can blog? The system needs to have clear, transparent rules to avoid the UNICEF moment of a comms person who thought (wrongly) that the UN banned blogging by staff.

The team clammed up a bit when I raised some comments on the previous post, which argued that the Bank is doing much worse on twitter than it is on blogging. They seem to use twitter in a more top down way, to ‘amplify’ blog content and corporate messages.

What happens when bloggers screw up? The social media team sees part of its remit as rushing to their defence, and have also won some key test case battles (often, they stress, with support of management), heading off attempts to shut down the more edgy bloggers, even when the result is potentially awkward for the Bank.

The culture feels fairly macho – self-confident experts willing to blog, and shrug off any criticisms. So obvious question – how many of the 300 bloggers are women? And (tut tut) they didn’t know – some room for improvement there, I think. Interesting gender stat on twitter – men are twice as likely to tweet; women are three times more likely to take their tweets down.

There has been lots of interest in the UN post, including a nice follow up post from Ian Thorpe of UNDP. Seems like a lot of people are thinking about the challenges of blogging from within institutions.

But what we didn’t get on to, and which I would love to hear from people on, is what comes next. Is there some successor to blogging in the wings? Or will blogging just become a permanent part of the landscape, alongside more traditional channels. If so, I haven’t seen it. Please enlighten me peeps (and tweeps).

7 comments

  1. I’d be interested to know how the world bank social media team deal with their in-bound comments. Presumably they get plenty at least along the lines “can we have a world bank loan for project xyz?” or even more forceful criticism. Do they respond and explain or do they just not engage with those outside the development expert tent.

  2. I expect more openness in the knowledge domain may require bureaucracies leaders to develop rather “thick skin”. What I mean is,there is a link between aid agency blogging and what I think of as “open knowledge”. Aid agency staff blogging manifests the changing relationships between aid organizations and their clients and with other organizations involved in development assistance. With respect to development related knowledge, aid agencies are slowly shifting from being entities that “impart” their fully formulated and well-crafted findings to being entities that share their evolving thinking with the broader community. This change, which manifests itself in blogging among other things, reflects a much more open and participatory way of developing and sharing knowledge. Formally I think most people who work in development (and even in big devt bureaucracies)agree this is a good change. But it almost certainly feels very scary, especially for managers. These managers must feel more exposed, indeed, they are more exposed as they have less and less control over the outward flow of content in their domain. For managers in big bureaucracies to get more comfortable with this, their own bosses will have to become comfortable with having disagreeable things said about the bureaucracy’s work in public forums. Otherwise managers will always be motivated to constrain blogging to reduce the possibility that something which reflects badly on their organizations work in their area will get out (leading to the angry phone call from the boss). Openness with respect to knowledge is surely no less important than open data. I expect it will take somewhat thick-skinned leaders to take aid bureaucracies in this direction.

  3. Great conversation. I blog for work, and I tend to write based on my point of view (“I” instead of “We”).
    I think that the reason why blogging is slow to take off is because it’s a relatively new area, and a lot of staff aren’t that familiar with it. Also, it’s time-consuming to write something clear and short.
    For my part, I asked to write for the blog because I love to write and I wanted it to be part of my everyday work.

    For the record – since you mentioned age – I am 32 years old.

  4. Since my blog has been mentioned, I wanted to add that I think of blogging as part of my job as chief economist, not as a hobby or sideline. My job is to bring the best possible knowledge to bear on the problems of development–so that there can be more evidence-based debate in countries. The blog provides a forum for both disseminating this evidence and fostering debate based on the evidence.

    Duncan, thanks for a great presentation and lively discussion at the World Bank this week.

    Shanta

  5. Just seen a TV advert for a UK NGO which I think included the punch line “we know how to save lives”. Following on from April’s comment any blog that reflects badly on an organisation or maybe even gives the impression that some of their projects might be failures , might not just result in a phone call from the boss but result in a big drop in donations and having to stop vital life saving work.

  6. I would frame the discussions in terms broader than blogs. For me, the advent first, of the Internet & then social media was a “great liberator” (even when I was in the World Bank). It changed the role of External relations. Previously, I had many runs-in (some serous) with them. They wanted to clear everything, which created problems especially with the research dept. They saw themselves as defender of the “party line”. With social media etc. they realized the main thing is to have a presence “out there”. And instead of “censorship” they started encouraging participation.

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