UK Government Tells Civil Servants to Tweet

The British government has told civil servants: Go forth and tweet.

The government published guidelines Tuesday for its departments on using the microblogging service Twitter.

Yet in contrast to Twitter's limit of 140 characters per message, the document runs 20 pages, or more than 5,000 words.

Neil Williams of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, who produced the guidelines, acknowledged that 20 pages was "a bit over the top," but said he had been surprised by "just how much there is to say."

The document tells civil servants their tweets should be "human and credible" and written in "informal spoken English."

It advises government departments to produce between two and 10 tweets a day, with a gap of at least 30 minutes between each "to avoid flooding our followers' Twitter streams."

The advice says Twitter can be used for everything from announcements to insights from ministers, and in a crisis could be a "primary channel" for communicating with the electorate.

The document warns against using Twitter simply to convey campaign messages, but notes that "while tweets may occasionally be 'fun,"' they should be in line with government objectives.

It also says departments should not follow any Twitter users who are not following them, as this could be interpreted as "Big Brother" behavior.

The prime minister's office, the Foreign Office and some individual lawmakers already use Twitter to broadcast their activities online. Prime Minister Gordon Brown's 10 Downing St. office has more than 1 million Twitter followers.

The guidelines are the government's latest attempt to embrace the Internet and social media -- efforts that have been both praised and mocked.

The stolid, unglamorous Brown has been memorably called "an analog politician in a digital age" by the leader of the opposition. And his YouTube appearance in April amid a scandal over lawmakers' expenses backfired when Brown seemed to be stiff, insincere and smiling inappropriately.

The Twitter document said the government must "accept that there will be some criticism" of its efforts.

Tom Watson. a Labour party lawmaker who is one of the House of Commons' most active bloggers, said Twitter could be a valuable tool for Britain's Labour government.

But he said the guidelines showed how levels of familiarity with the Internet varied widely in the government's Whitehall offices.

"There are some very bright, digitally enabled civil servants who unfortunately have to write these documents for their bosses, the mandarins, who still get their secretaries to print off their e-mails so they can read them," Watson told the BBC.