Why are there so few bloggers at the UN? A conversation with staff.

May 7, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I spent a busy few days in New York last week, talking to (well, OK, mainly talking at) about 200 UN staff at various meetings in UN Women, UNDP andI blog therefore I am UNICEF. There was a lot of energy in the room (and even outside the room – people at UNDP spilled over into the corridor), and plenty of probing viva-like questions and comments.

Which is what I expected, because intellectually, I think the UN is in an enormously productive phase. Just thinking back over recent  posts on this blog, there is UNRISD on Social and Solidarity Economy, UNCTAD on finance-driven globalization, UNDP on the rise of the South, UN Women on women and the justice system and regular appearances by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Taken as a whole, this output is innovative and important, both challenging received wisdom and coming up with some of the new ideas and alternatives we so desperately need.

So where are the UN’s bloggers? UN staff certainly read blogs (including this one, I think a lot of people came along just to see what a blogaholic looks like in the flesh). But they hardly ever write them – the only one I regularly read is Ian Thorpe’s excellent ‘KM on a Dollar a Day’ (the KM is Knowledge Management), but that is so unbranded I’m not even sure the UN knows he’s doing it. The only official UN blog that comes up on a quick search is aimed at the general public – photos etc – not much there for wonks.

In contrast, I’m speaking at the World Bank tomorrow and suggested a chat to a few of its bloggers. Tricky they said – there’s 300 of them. Why the enormous difference? Is this about a greater degree of overall confidence and agency among Bank staff, or the institutional and political constraints operating in both institutions, or a mix of the two?

You want me to blog? Must I?

You want me to blog? Must I?

This awoke painful memories of a ‘bloggers’ breakfast‘ between CGD and Oxfam America last year. As we went round the table, CGD researchers raved about how much they enjoyed blogging, the to and fro of debate, the interaction etc. The Oxfamistas came over all Eeyore and said how anxious they felt about bloggin in case they make mistakes or get the organization (or themselves) into trouble. (To be fair, Oxfam America blogs have come a long way since then, including hiring Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters).

The UN staff seem to be in an even more extreme version of that defensive crouch, so worried about going wrong that they don’t even try. One person in a comms team even claimed that blogging is actually prohibited in the UN, only to be told that no, social media was an official priority (they’re doing better on twitter – UNICEF has 1.8m followers). And there’s plenty of would-be bloggers around – when I asked how many wrote private blogs, 4 out of 50 UNICEF people raised their hands.

So (assuming there isn’t some secret management conspiracy to stifle would-be bloggers), how could the UN start blogging, they asked? A few ideas:

Blogging only works if you move ‘from permission to forgiveness’, as the management cliché has it. But in a large institution with a reputation to protect, you can’t just let anyone start blogging under your logo – they need to earn it. How to marry risk management and the freedom and speed needed to blog? A probation period is a good compromise – for the first six months of this blog, I had to get sign off from Oxfam International for every post, then we relaxed a bit. Now if I screw up too often, I know they’ll rein me in, but if I don’t rattle a few Oxfam cages, I know I’m being too bland. There’s a balance to be struck.

Don’t force everyone to blog – if people see it as a chore, the resulting posts are guaranteed to be unreadable.  Why not start with those four private bloggers and get them to kick off the blog?

Give them time: blogs take months to establish, as word of mouth spreads and readers mount up (or not – the market is merciless).

Give them a face: anonymous institutional blogs don’t usually work. Blogs need a personality. If you haven’t got anyone as obsessive as me, try the Global Dashboard model – a stable of bloggers, with an option to sign up the ones you like. That takes the pressure off a bit.

Any more tips?

This should really matter to the UN, in my view. Good research and policy papers don’t disseminate themselves, and the blogosphere is an increasingly important way to get your messages out. By self-censoring in this way, the UN is reducing the impact of some really excellent work. Consider yourselves lobbied.

This is just a subset of a much wider issue – how to attract and retain mavericks/original thinkers in large bureaucratic aid institutions. But my colleague (and uber maverick) Nicholas Colloff has complained about the growing length of these posts, so (see how interactive this is?) I’ll leave that for another time.

May 7, 2013
Duncan Green