Sally Lewis, Chief Executive of Avon & Somerset Probation Trust, on why she tweets.
Why I tweet
There are, pretty much, only two reactions I get from people outside the “twittersphere” when they learn that I tweet.
Friends and acquaintances tend ask, “isn’t it just about following people like Lady Gaga or Wayne Rooney?” Well, no disrespect to Wayne and Lady G, or indeed any of their followers but I’m not remotely interested in celebrity or sport. Occasionally there are a flurry of messages on my twitter feed that suggest England have scored a goal or won a medal and it serves as a useful reminder of the many worlds of interest out there beyond those I personally inhabit.
The second response comes from colleagues who unfailingly say, “I don’t know how you find the time.” This is most certainly the question that raises the more interesting issues. Whether you’re a practitioner or leader in Probation it’s crucial to ensure you’re very well informed.
Probation Trusts in England and Wales didn’t get to be the first public service to win the British Quality Foundation Gold Excellence Award (as recognition for their commitment to continuous improvement) without the vigilance of a colony of Meerkats. Being a front line delivery organisation means being alert to what is happening in our professional world, national politics and importantly in our local communities. Contrary to what might be the prevailing view twitter is one important way of “getting out more.”
Email has become contaminated
Keeping yourself well informed is hard work and time consuming. Email communications would come low on my list of recommended approaches.
Chief Probation Officers, as leaders of a public body, are required to have an email address that anyone can post to. Consequently I am bombarded with sales pitches that often annoyingly present themselves as official notifications. For me therefore email has become contaminated and inefficient.
With twitter I can follow those individuals or groups that deliver information that I want. I also benefit from their retweets; that is, things they have selected as interesting. If I find their information not useful I simply stop following. Importantly tweeters, unlike emailers, can’t intrude on my timeline without my invitation, or as the “guest” (retweet) of someone I have invited.
Getting the probation message out there
Probation Trusts deliver hugely important services and it would be difficult to find a body of staff who might rival them for their professional integrity and capacity for sheer hard work. Every day we prevent the commission of harm and reoffending, so our success can often be measured as much by what doesn’t happen as what does.
Yet here’s the rub, “woman doesn’t get attacked” will never make news.
In recent years governments have pursued steps towards putting much of what we do into open competition. It is why Probation Trusts were created. In this new context it’s important that we step out into the public domain and help our communities become more aware of the value of what we deliver. How, therefore, could we ignore free important social media such as Twitter?
So, as a seasoned tweeter, what have I learned?
I think twitter is used to most advantage as a dialogue. I believe however that a very legitimate use is for those people who simply want to follow/ receive information. I’ve always had respect for the quiet good listeners in our world. Conversely I never follow a tweeter who has things to say but doesn’t follow anyone. Why would I be concerned with the views of someone who has no interest in listening to others? I’m more than happy to follow people who don’t follow me but I draw the line at someone who wants to talk at the world with no intention of listening. What does it mean that a number of politicians and celebrities fall into this category?
Tweeting is a great way of knowing what’s going on in your local communities. I can follow what’s happening in all parts of the large, varied and interesting area our Trust covers. The twitter accounts all have their own very distinctive character and this brings local events to life with passion, humour, photos etc….all in real time.
Keeping a finger on the national pulse is important too and following Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (@HMIProbation) keeps me aware of every new report with a direct link.
My work and personal life sometimes get confused / misread between the Ministry of Justice (@MoJGovUK) tweets and the Royal Opera House, their thumbnail profile image looks so similar. I suspect there may be similar levels of drama in both!
In terms of local politics it’s fascinating to follow the candidates for Police and Crime Commissioner and of course the candidates for Bristol Mayor. Even the head of the civil service tweets and @SirBobKerslake shares information that reminds us, despite many stereotypes to the contrary, that civil servants are in fact human too. (Probation staff, for anyone unsure, are not civil servants.)
A hugely important group, for me, are the academics on twitter who publicise important developments in the evidence base that supports the work we do. They bring the work alive by tweeting blogs, YouTube lectures and of course the recently launched outstanding documentary “The Road From Crime” by the Discovering Desistance Knowledge Exchange.
I’m aware of a growing body of front line practitioners tweeting about the everyday concerns and successes of probation staff. There is something about the informality of twitter that engenders a comfortable dialogue regardless of grade or geography. I responded one day to an anonymous tweeter @PoOfficer who wistfully noted that if (s)he were Chief for the day they might resolve so much. I suggested they might meet their Chief and share ideas. This exchange inspired a colleague Chief to suggest and co-ordinate #shadowforaday, an initiative that brought Chiefs and front line staff from across the country to meet and gain better understand each others roles, recording their experiences for other tweeters to read. A great initiative that could not have happened without twitter and one day, if and when @PoOfficer takes off his/her mask I hope we can shadow each other.
One negative and entirely inaccurate stereotype of Probation staff is that they have only one interest and that is for the offender. The important but little publicised statutory work we undertake with victims of crime, and the priority all our staff attach to the protection and well-being of victims and survivors, mean this perception couldn’t be further from the truth. Twitter has provided an excellent medium for me to network with and learn from individuals and organisations that represent victims of crime. In addition there is a strong body of tweeters who keep me in touch with Restorative Justice developments. In fact it’s hard to imagine an area of professional special interest about which twitter has nothing to offer.
There are a number of tweeters I follow because they make me think. Who could fail to be fascinated by @LettersOfNote publishing the most remarkable correspondence from throughout the ages. Then there are those such as @sixthformpoet who never fails to make me – and in this case 53,000+ others – laugh.
So, to go back to the perennial question from colleagues, how do I find the time to use twitter?
The only puzzle for me is how my colleagues find the time to chase and hunt down ideas and information rather than setting up a twitter account to ensure so much information comes effortlessly to them.
This is the 21st post in the criminal justice/legal Why I tweet series. Read the others here.
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