Boris is back

Just to close off the story from a couple of weeks ago… as you’ll almost certainly know already, Boris Johnson won the London mayoral election. And as pledged, he has now returned to tweeting as @MayorOfLondon – an account which, we have now confirmed, belongs to the Office of Mayor, and not Boris personally.

Boris Johnson Twitter storm: no oversight, no grey area – and not his first such offence

You’ll remember the furore, just about a month ago, when London mayor Boris Johnson renamed his @mayoroflondon Twitter account @BorisJohnson – and in doing so, turned what had ostensibly (?) been an official account owned by the Mayor’s office into a campaigning platform for his re-election.

The decision to stop tweeting as Mayor was, unquestionably, correct. But by simply renaming the account, his (party political) campaign team had suddenly acquired an opt-in contact list of a quarter of a million people. Understandably, there was quite a backlash – and by bedtime, the account had been renamed @mayoroflondon, and mothballed.

Having spent almost my entire career walking that tightrope between ‘party political’ and ‘elected official’ communication – whether it be as a civil servant myself, or these days, running websites for MPs / ministers / candidates – I saw this as a fascinating case study. The @mayoroflondon account had been quoted on official Greater London Assembly communications for several years. But who actually owned it: Boris himself, or the office of Mayor? Had anyone ever asked that question?

So I lodged an FOI request. And they’ve just sent me their response.

I asked:

Can you please release copies of any correspondence to/from the Mayor’s private office, the Mayor’s press office or the GLA Public Liaison Unit relating to:

  • the decision to rename the account in 2009, adopting the name of the office of Mayor, with no indication of any direct personal attachment to the current incumbent;
  • the formal ownership of the account: whether it was considered Mr Johnson’s personal property, or whether it belonged to the office of Mayor;
  • requests to use the account for official purposes;
  • the decision to include references to the MayorOfLondon Twitter account in press releases and other official communications;
  • Mr Johnson’s move today (20 March) to rename the account and change its purpose into that of a platform for his re-election campaign, including references to the BackBoris2012.com website where there had previously been links to london.gov.uk

They have only been able to supply material in response to my final point. Which means, one would naturally assume, that the matter had never been raised beforehand. An regrettable oversight perhaps.

And so to 20 March 2012.

At 4.22pm, a good few hours after things had kicked off, head of media Samantha Hart sent an email to press office colleagues:

As you’re probably aware now, the @mayoroflondon twitter account has now been renamed  Boris Johnson and is being run by the campaign. If you have any links to @mayoroflondon on your email signature or anywhere else, please can remove it asap?

In other words: City Hall staff hadn’t been forewarned. And the account was now ‘being run by the campaign’ – where, one can reasonably infer, it wasn’t before. Half an hour later, Sam sends round a ‘line to take’, to help press officers deal with any enquiries.

Boris Johnson has decided it would not be appropriate during the pre-election period for him to be tweeting as Mayor of London. He has therefore made it clear to all his followers that he will now be tweeting under his own name outside of City Hall. Anyone who no longer wishes to follow his tweets will be reminded repeatedly that they can unsubscribe with one click of the mouse. @mayoroflondon can be revived by whoever is elected on May 3.

A resolution of sorts, then. The @mayoroflondon account is thus formally deemed to be the property of ‘whoever is elected’: meaning this won’t happen again next time. And a couple of hours later, at 6.25pm came further confirmation from Guto Harri – the former BBC journalist, now Boris’s Director of External Affairs:

The MayorOfLondon twitter feed has been mothballed until the 5th of May. Boris will update his long-standing followers about his non-campaigning activities under the a new feed called @Boris Johnson (…) The @MayorOfLondon feed can be revived on May 5th by whoever wins the election.

… although by midnight, the plan had changed again. The @BorisJohnson account too was mothballed, before a single tweet was sent; with all party-political tweeting through @backboris2012.

So, what do we learn from this silly little affair?

Ministers, Mayors and other elected representatives are multi-dimensional beings. They have an official status. They probably attained that official status by winning an election, on behalf of a political party. And they are (almost certainly) human beings too, with interests and relationships outside politics.

If we insist on maintaining a separation between all three dimensions – and there’s an argument that we should drop the pretence, as referenced by Jon Worth’s excellent blog post – then the Rules of Engagement for any ‘personal’ communication channel needs to be made clear. If you’re a social media manager, or Head of Digital Engagement, that’s your job. You need to lay down some ground rules on behalf of any ‘official’ communications channels… and see that they are enforced. Ask any difficult questions now, before it becomes an issue later.

Except – it had already been an issue.

Seeing Sam Hart’s request that all links to @mayoroflondon be removed, I naturally had to search the london.gov.uk website to see if that had happened. The answer? – yes and no. Certainly there aren’t many references to the account on london.gov.uk any more. But that made it all the easier for me to find this document from October 2009, relating to a complaint made against Mr Johnson by one Graham Parks.

He had complained that a tweet from the @mayoroflondon account on 30 September 2009 had apparently welcomed The Sun newspaper’s decision to back the Conservatives at the forthcoming general election. The matter went to the Assessment Sub-Committee of the GLA’s Standards Committee, who ruled:

it was clear that (the tweet) was written by or on behalf of the Mayor of London, as the hyperlink to the twitter account was found on the Mayor of London page on the GLA website.

In other words, the Sub-Committee had already, in effect, ruled that the @mayoroflondon account – by quoting a london.gov.uk URL – had declared itself to be the property of City Hall. They unanimously concluded:

Having regard to all the circumstances, the Assessment Sub-Committee concluded that, by writing in that manner, the Mayor of London could be seen to have breached paragraph 6(b) (ii) of the Authority’s Code of Conduct, as it appeared on the evidence presented that the Mayor of London was using GLA resources in seeking to affect party political support.

Having regards to all the facts and circumstances, the Assessment Sub-Committee considered that it was appropriate and proportionate for it to take a decision of “other action”, requiring the GLA’s Monitoring Officer to raise this with Mr Johnson, the Mayor of London, and give guidance to him about the use by him or his office of the Mayor of London twitter account.

In other words, the matter had been discussed: there was no oversight, and no grey area. The GLA had already asserted its ownership of the account. And Boris had already been sanctioned for abusing it.

Make of that what you will. And if you’re a Londoner, remember to cast your vote on 3 May.

When is an ‘official’ Twitter account not an official Twitter account?

Much consternation in certain political circles this afternoon, as Boris Johnson renames his Twitter account… and takes a quarter of a million people’s details over to his election campaign HQ.

Johnson was elected on 4 May 2008. His first tweet came on 8 May 2008 (‘Setting up social marketing accounts!’) – although it’s not entirely clear what username the account used when it was created. In January 2009, though, he changed that username to MayorOfLondon. And the account has been quoted since at least May 2009 in official City Hall press releases, as his official account. Or in the case of that May 2009 press release, ‘the Mayor’s Twitter site’.

Before today’s change, the URL associated with the account was http://www.london.gov.uk/ – and the biography read:

City Government for Greater London under the auspices of the Mayor of London

Could it have sounded more official?

(Something similar has happened to his Facebook account too; facebook.com/borisjohnson is now adorned with BackBoris2012 logos, and contains no history prior to 17 March 2012. And yes, that Facebook URL has similarly been promoted in the past as his official presence.)

In response, there’s a statement on the BackBoris website:

As some of you may have noticed, earlier today Boris changed the name of his Twitter account from @MayorofLondon to @BorisJohnson. While the name of the account may have changed, rest assured that the account is still – and has always been – controlled by Boris.

No City Hall resources will be used to update or maintain the account – that would be against the rules. Given we’re now in the official election period, this change is being made so there can be no question of Boris using official resources to campaign.

Of course, those who no longer wish to follow the account are welcome to “unfollow” at any time.

Of course, it’s not the fact that future City Hall resources will be used; it’s that past City Hall resources have already been used to build up a significant following. And the last line is somewhat ill-advised, in my opinion.

I’d be very interested to find out from people at City Hall – or indeed, from HM Government’s Deputy Director of Digital Engagement, Emer Coleman who used to be City Hall’s head of digital projects – as to whether City Hall thought it ‘owned’ the account on behalf of the office of Mayor.

If the account was always personal, Boris should have used his personal name. By using the name of his elected office, the natural assumption is unquestionably that you are following the individual in his/her elected capacity – as was the case with the Prime Ministerial Twitter account.

Here’s a tip. If you’re working in a government web team, I strongly advise you get something in writing to confirm who exactly owns any Ministerial accounts – rapidly.

Update: a climbdown of sorts. Boris has tweeted:

To be clear- @borisjohnson will only be used for discussing mayoral duties. To follow me on the campaign trail, follow @backboris2012

And in a post on the BackBoris2012 website:

‘As he entered the campaign he was determined to ensure there was no confusion between him as Mayor and him as a candidate and therefore changed the name of his Twitter account.

‘He did not expect this openness and honesty to have created such hysteria.

‘So in case there is even one Londoner who has a problem with what he did, he will not use that account for the campaign and instead can be followed from the political front on @BackBoris2012.’

Has he reverted back to being @MayorOfLondon? No. But the username hasn’t been abandoned – someone, and you have to hope it’s someone close to Boris and/or City Hall, has bagged it. Hopefully for safe keeping. We don’t want this happening again, do we.

Updated update: Somewhat inevitably, Boris has – pardon the pun – backed down. He’s now reverted to using @MayorOfLondon as his account name, and the BorisJohnson account has gone blank again.

Full launch for Met crime maps

Wednesday saw the formal launch of London’s crime maps, which first appeared in beta only a couple of weeks back. Don’t call it ‘1.0’ though: the source code declares it’s actually ‘beta 1.02’.

As before, it shows areas colour-coded for the rates of ‘burglary, robbery and vehicle crime’, based on comparisons with ‘the average’. Yes, that’s an approach which has its limitations – my favourite being that areas containing police stations tend to rate worst for offences, because of (for example) finding drugs on someone you’ve just taken into the custody suite. But as a first step, it’s surely a good one. There are plenty of legal and logistical issues to overcome before we start putting dots on the map according to offences… and as we all know by now, if you try to sort everything out before going live, you never go live.

No mention of the total cost in the official press release, but I’ve seen a figure of £210,000 reported (eg Daily Mail). Given that it’s a fairly straightforward map mashup, using the standard infoWindows and polygons built into the (free) Google Maps interface, I’d be very interested to see a confirmation and/or breakdown of that. Fair play to Boris and his Conservative administration for getting it out the door early; but the next ‘how much did that government website cost?’ argument could be interesting.

Meanwhile, I see the Foreign Office is doing some map mashing of its own, with a cute (rather than useful) map of travel advice notices for the home nations’ World Cup qualifiers. But crucially, they’ve done it using the free ‘My Maps’ functionality; and it’s offered purely as an external link, not even an embed on the FCO page.

The perfect ballot battle

In all the analysis of Ken’s downfall and Boris’s triumph, one element I hope doesn’t get ignored is the turnout. The RSA’s Matthew Taylor blogged on Friday suggesting it was the most interesting result of all, and I’m inclined to agree – although possibly for the opposite reason.

The London mayoral contest should have been the perfect electoral tussle. With all due respect to Paddick et al, it was always a two-horse race. Two instantly recognisable figures, well known by both broadsheet and tabloid readerships. A posh bloke versus a champion of the working class, neither of them ‘party men’. Plenty of real local issues to focus on. Plenty of media exposure too. A fairer electoral system, allowing you a ‘free vote’ for your first preference (with all the possibilities that offers) before casting your ‘proper’ second vote. And most importantly, an end result that was genuinely in the balance.

Yet it only stirred 45% of Londoners to bother to vote. Granted, this was up from previous years: 34% in 2000, and 37% in 2004. But it falls well, well short of the 70% we used to expect at general elections. And it means that, even taking both first and second preference votes into account, the winner only won the active support of 21.5% of the total electorate.

Of course we should be happy to see turnout rising. But it’s hard to imagine an election that could have been easier to ‘sell’ to the voters; and we only managed 45%. It’s not great, is it.

PS: Interesting to see the Tories heavily promoting their Twitter account on the conservatives.com homepage. We knew it was official, but I guess this makes it a formal comms channel for them… although I note the promo goes for the ‘subscribe via SMS’ approach, watering down the commitment to Twitter a bit.