Why aren’t there more UN bloggers? – an insider’s view
Duncan Green of Oxfam and author of “From Poverty to Power” book and blog recently did a bunch of presentations at the UN on “what’s hot in development”. I attended his UNDP talk which you can see here, which was lively and thought-provoking. But I almost wish I had attended his talk at UNICEF where there was apparently an interesting discussion on why (unlike the World Bank for example) there are so few UN bloggers.
He wrote a blog on it here which I recommend you to read, and this is now doing the rounds inside UNDP and possibly other agencies too.
So as one of the few UN staffers who blog I wanted to share a few thoughts of my own as to why we don’t blog more.
1. Political sensitivities and neutrality – at the UN we obviously need to be especially careful about not discussing publicly political or other sensitive or controversial topics, and to behave in a way that reflects positively on our role as international civil servants and avoid doing anything that would reflect badly on the UN. This isn’t particularly about blogging or social media – it’s part of the UN rules that apply to us all the time – including when we are not at work. We also need to be careful not to speak officially for the organization except when authorized to do so.
But this means we need to be mindful – not that it’s not allowed. These types of rules are also typical in other public bureaucracies including DFID, the US State Department and the World Bank who have a number of public blogs.
2. Risk aversion – I’ve written before that the UN is quite risk averse as an organization and often for good reason. In addition to political sensitivities there is also concern about saying things that might upset donors (institutional, corporate and individual), or for “being wrong” about something or making a mistake which might also reflect badly on the organization’s reputation. Again this isn’t unique to the UN – but I think this is more acute in the UN (and probably in organizations like Oxfam that raise money from the public) than it is in the Bank or DFID where there is less perceived risk to funding from a bad blog post.
3. Lack of publishing culture and guidance – the lack of blogging is perhaps the tip of a bigger iceberg which is the much lower level of publication of UN staffers at least when compared with the World Bank. Our internal procedures make it relatively difficult to get permission to produce an official publication in terms of approvals, reviews and timeline. These systems are largely put in pace for some good reasons e.g to ensure quality and deter frivolous proposals for publications that haven’t been well thought through. But at the same time they way they are implemented can seem a little stifling and so you are only likely only to pursue publication selectively. UN publications often don’t clearly identify staff contributors further reducing incentives and it’s “not done” to seek personal recognition. Publishing externally (such as in a journal) or blogging suffer from this overall approach to publishing and this is further compounded by the fact that the rules on what is permitted, or what permissions you might need and from who mare not clear. Is it an official activity, or is it an activity for personal time? do you need permission from your boss, your ethics department, you communication team? can you identify your affiliation? well it depends on who you ask.
4. Platforms and tools – There is no official UN blogging platform, so if you want to blog, you need to find, learn and maintain your own tool. It’s not difficult but it means that blogging skews heavily towards the technology savvy. Some organizations have internal social networking platforms such as UN Teamworks, Yammer or UNite Connect. These are great for encouraging internal dialogue and sharing, and allow people to “get their feet wet” with blogging but they are usually agency specific and closed off to the outside world. But this means that they are missing out on some of the best discussions and feedback which come from sharing your ideas with the outside world and we risk to mistake the internal dialogue with the real development conversations taking place “out there” (see here for a comparison of internal and external blogging I did some time ago).
5. Lack of people with interesting things to blog about? – one commenter on Duncan’s blog suggested that qualified, clever people were few and far between in the UN. I have to say that in my experience – this in NOT the case. There are lots of very smart, dynamic, dedicated people who have much interesting knowledge and experience to share. Sure not everyone has something to write about – but there is no shortage of people who do.
6. Leadership support – probably the biggest difference between those organizations that do and those that don’t is that blogging organizations have support from the top. Basically if the leadership of a public organization decides it want to use blogging as a means of outreach and as a way to show intellectual leadership, then many of the other issues can be resolved. In the UN it’s not that we’ve been told not to blog, but we haven’t been explicitly encouraged to do it either and so it’s just too difficult or unclear for many people to make the effort. By contrast in blogging organizations it’s accepted as part of business, there is guidance and support on how to do it (and what not to do), there might well be a technical platform made available, and it might even be reflected in job descriptions, and it factors positively into how you are viewed by your colleagues and bosses (and will also reflect back positively on your organization).
In the meantime you will still have a few UN bloggers pop up here and there, especially in knowledge management since blogging and exchange form part of our toolkit, but we will probably remain the exception.
Despite that there are more UN blogs, official and non-official that you might not have heard of. Here are some highlights.
Some official UN blogs that are not just promotional in nature:
- IFAD social reporting
- Stories of UNICEF innovation – from the UNICEF innovation team
- UN Global Pulse blog – from the Global Pulse team on their work with data, technology and development
- ICT-ILO blog – on learning training and technology
- UNDP Voices from Eurasia
Some personal blogs by UN staffers that are well worth a read:
- Buridan’s Blog – on knowledge, information and change management.
- Stepping Higher – Johannes Schunter’s blog on knowledge management
- Gauri’s mumblings – Gauri Salokhe of FAO on knowledge management (unfortunately not updated recently)
- On the road to discovery – by Roxanna Samii of IFAD on knowledge management and organizational development issues
- Sebastian Rottmair’s blog/webpage – features “The Little Peacekeeper” as well as the extremely useful (but unofficial) UN Job list.
- Talk-Share-Learn – by Luca Servo of FAO on communication for development
- A Digerati Wannabe – by Michael Riggs of FAO on knowledge sharing and development work
Have I missed any?