KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Why aren’t there more UN bloggers? – an insider’s view

with 13 comments

mike lynch blog cartoon 03

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:

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?

Written by Ian Thorpe

May 8, 2013 at 2:00 pm

13 Responses

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  1. Hi Ian, we also have a blog at the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific regional office. We use this for a mixture of opinion pieces from our regional experts, plus stories from the field by comms people like me:

    Andy Brown

    May 9, 2013 at 3:40 am

  2. Thank you for these reflections
    I have written some lines about this:
    I encourage employees of development organizations to gather the courage to talk about their work more openly. It will have a positive impact on the organization’s work. After all, people working in this field chose to do so for honorable reasons: to make the world a better place. And this will reflect in their communication with the outside world.


    May 9, 2013 at 4:30 am

  3. Hi Ian,
    Interesting reflections. Some additional blogs to make the list bigger :

    the ILO blog, work in progress

    United Nations University

    World Bank blogs

    End poverty in South Asia

    I like the idea of a blog inventory !

    Tom Wambeke

    May 9, 2013 at 6:23 am

  4. Thanks for the shout out Ian 🙂 We are really proud of our around 200 (and growing everyday!) UNDP bloggers on Voices of Eurasia

    Blythe Fraser

    May 9, 2013 at 10:08 am

  5. Hi Ian. First, thanks for the plug. Second, I think another problem is that UN staff (and maybe this is true in general) do not necessarily see the value of blogging, and how ‘working out loud’ makes you and your team more effective. It is up to those of us who blog, and use social media at work, to tell compelling stories about how the social web adds value.


    May 9, 2013 at 1:37 pm

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. Hi, The International Trade Centre is an agency of the UN and WTO – i write a blog on trade and environment issues – team members from the Trade and Environment unit also contribute.

    Thanks Alex Kasterine


    alex kasterine

    May 10, 2013 at 7:33 am

  8. Hi Ian,

    Agree with your points but think that you might have missed out the word ‘official’ in the title of this blog post? 🙂 –> “Why aren’t there more OFFICIAL UN bloggers?” as some of the points you raised would not apply to blogger who work for the UN but blog personal thoughts (even if inspired by their job, an example: my blog on the digital workplace

    Otherwise, to contribute to the list, two more examples: UNICEF MENA blog, UNICEF Iraq blog


    May 24, 2013 at 12:37 pm

    • Hi Ernst
      Thanks for the link to your great personal blog which I had overlooked.

      I do think some of the points in my blog also apply to personal blogging on work related topics, particularly on lack of guidance, political sensitivity and risk aversion. I find I do need to think quite a bit about what I can say and not say about my work on my blog.

      Ideally it would be easier for UN staffers to blog officially on technical issues (as opposed to writing official blog posts for purely promotional purposes where there is a little more scope) then there might be less need for personal blogging on work issues – although I think there will always be value for both.

      Ian Thorpe

      May 28, 2013 at 10:36 am

      • Hi Ian, You’re very right and I’ve just been learning about this… Hence if I had to rewrite my earlier comment today I would say: “Agree completely with your points, which apply even for ‘unofficial’ (personal) blogs.”d


        June 3, 2013 at 5:54 am

  9. Hi Ian, I’m not a staffer but have a few posts on consultancy projects with the UN on my blog, It’s true that I do have to be careful about what I say, but I think it’s worthwhile to give people a peek into how things function, i.e. be transparent.


    May 28, 2013 at 3:45 pm

  10. Hi Ian, as usual enjoy reading your blogs. Joining the discussion, I see the trend and understanding of blogging culture from the communication perspective in the UN system. Again, it is taken only to the communication specialists level, or social media people who are in fact have already been aligned with the blogging approach. At the same time, are we diluting the nature of press information (press-release) by just changing the titles into ‘blogs’. The main component of blogging is that it is done by contributors themselves (peer-to-peer approach), rather than (top-down) from the communication office. My question and interest would be how can we create this successful culture of blogging from staff at all levels? What could be enhanced in the blogging culture is that all contributors should understand their blogs should not only feature their pictures next to farmers, but some comparative analysis (to be more succint). Those blogs would be more valued (also getting a lot of hits and shares), as we are getting tacit knowledge. Personally, I would say successful blogging is a skill that needs to be harnessed and polished with over time.
    Last piece, thanks to you, I started blogging myself (though don’t update regularly), but getting into that concept very much. You need someone who you could follow and this is where I see the role of leadership. Cheers, Ifoda

    Ifoda (@Ifodakhon)

    September 18, 2013 at 3:43 pm

  11. […] KM systems have their challenges. Incentivizing people to participate seems to be one of the biggest obstacles for Ifoda and many other organizations spanning cultures around the world. Incorporating new […]

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