London: Thousands of civil servants will be told to use Facebook at work to find out what the public is thinking.
Under plans branded “totally mad”, Sir Bob Kerslake, the new head of the civil service, has written to Whitehall (government) chiefs ordering them to make sure staff can interact with the public on social networking websites.
But the “active consultation” plans have been met with incredulity by senior officials, who believe the move will simply encourage civil servants to spend time idly contacting their friends on Facebook.
It is also feared the plan could be a computer security risk.
Kerslake has given departments until September to adjust their computer firewalls to allow access to Facebook, which is currently banned by most of them.
The civil service boss is a passionate advocate of engaging with the public through social networking and believes it will help the Government interact with voters.
He wants Whitehall officials to put out more information during policy consultations via the internet.
Kerslake’s memo will lead to thousands of mandarins and junior civil servants getting access to Facebook for up to three months at a time.
Those working on projects that feature public consultations, which usually run for 12 weeks, would be allowed to use social networking websites, also including Twitter.
A source close to Kerslake said: “He has sent a letter to permanent secretaries. Kerslake believes we have got to be much better at using social media to engage the public.
‘The technology is such that all the security means we can’t access these kinds of sites at the moment.
“By the end of September he wants to make sure the relevant civil servants can engage with the public on how we can do better.
“What he’s not saying is that this is blanket access to Facebook and Twitter for all.
“It is for people who are engaged in active consultations.”
But one senior official told the Mail: “This is totally mad. It’s a licence for civil servants to mess about all day on Facebook.
“If everyone does personal Facebooking for just 10 minutes a day, that will cost taxpayers millions of pounds a year in lost man hours.”
Another Whitehall source said: “Thirty days holiday plus extra ‘privilege’ days off, flexitime, every Friday off thanks to compressed hours, huge pensions and now unfettered access to Facebook — it’s an easy life being a civil servant.
“It is no surprise it takes years to get anything done in government. The waste of hard-earned taxpayers’ money is a disgrace.”
Bernard Jenkin, Tory chairman of the public administration select committee, said he could see advantages in the proposal, but warned MPs would need reassurance the system is not being abused.
He said: “There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be a Facebook page for every consultation. It would seem to be a way of engaging with the world outside Whitehall.
“But it has obviously got to be for the purposes of government and not for people’s personal use.”
His colleague Philip Davies said: “I’ve not seen much evidence the civil service cares about the opinions of the public. There’s not much point them engaging with the public if they aren’t going to pay any heed to what they think.”
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “Millions of people use social media, and they often want to talk to government about the public services they rely on and what we can do to make them better.
“That’s only going to work if it’s a genuinely two-way conversation. That means giving civil servants involved in consulting on new policy greater access to social media.”