The Australian Public Service Commission has launched detailed new guidance outlining the risks and obligations public servants face when using social media.
The resource has been released just weeks after former federal public servant Josh Krook spoke out about censorship in the public service. A policy officer within the Industry department, Krook was allegedly threatened with the sack after writing a blog post on how COVID-19 benefitted big tech, despite him being “very careful” not to criticise the government or government policy in the post.
Expressing personal views can reflect not only on the employee but on their agency and the APS as a whole, which can impact public confidence, the guidance states. It warns that confidence in the APS can be particularly vulnerable to employees’ personal behaviour online.
“But on social media in particular, our private actions can have far wider-reaching effects than we intend — or, often, can control. Our online footprint is effectively permanent, and what we post can find its way to people we never imagined would see it,” it says.
“We cannot always predict what will go viral, nor how our posts might be taken out of context. This means we need to be particularly careful about our engagement online, where our behaviour is more visible, more enduring, and much more likely to affect public trust in the public service — as well as our own professional reputation and credibility.”
The personal behaviour of public servants can undermine public trust if it causes a reasonable person to conclude that they are unable to serve the government of the day impartially and professionally. The APSC says, for example, that if an employee posts something highly critical of a policy they advise on, it would be reasonable to question their ability to provide impartial advice when they are at work, or even to wonder if they might deliberately undermine the government’s policy objectives.
The guidance notes that the higher the risk that an employee’s post could undermine trust in the APS, the more likely it is to be in breach of the APS Code of Conduct.
Earlier this year, Victorian deputy chief health officer Dr Annaliese van Diemen was accused by a Liberal MP of undermining public confidence when she posted a tweet comparing Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Victorian Public Sector Commission later found she had not undermined public confidence. van Diemen has since deleted her Twitter account and has taken on non-COVID-19 duties.
The guidance refers to social media as “a wide and evolving range of online interactions and behaviours on many different platforms”. It lists the more obvious platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but notes that “more seemingly private tools like email” could be included in some cases.
Behaviours, meanwhile, could involve anything from participating in online petitions and fundraisers to “sending direct or private messages on networking platforms”.
The guidance warns that an employee “liking” someone else’s post carries similar risks to posting the material themselves.
“This is because you can reasonably be perceived to endorse the content—even if this is not your intention,” it says.
“For example, if you ‘like’ your friend’s highly politicised post about small business regulation to show your support for their café, a reasonable member of the community is likely to think you endorse the political statement.”
However, simply following someone or adding them as a “friend” or connection — and not engaging with their posts — is a low-risk activity. Being tagged in a post may carry some risk, the guidance says, so “it’s prudent to untag yourself as soon as it comes to your attention”, and to ask not to be tagged in subsequent posts.
Anonymity cannot protect public servants from risks, the APSC warns.
“Employees can be identified online in a range of ways, even if they post anonymously or using an alias — and once you are identified as an APS employee, your behaviour can affect public confidence regardless of your intention to keep your posts and your employment separate,” it says.
“If you are posting anonymously, you should assume that at some point your identity and the nature of your employment may be revealed.”
In 2019, the High Court ruled that it was reasonable for the former Department of Immigration and Citizenship to fire Michaela Banerji in 2013 over comments made via her anonymous Twitter account. The ruling overturned a 2018 decision of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal that found the sacking had infringed on Banerji’s limited right to freedom of political communication.
The guidance notes that in some cases, it may be useful for public servants to include a disclaimer on their profile or on an individual post to state their views are their own and don’t represent an agency, the APS, or the government. However, a disclaimer isn’t enough to eliminate all the risks.
There are three key factors that can increase the risk of damage to public confidence: the employee’s seniority (the more senior the employee, the greater the risk); the relationship between the topic of the post and the employee’s work; and how extreme the expression of the employee’s view is (the more extreme the behaviour and expression is, the greater the risk).
The APSC lists a range of high risk behaviours for employees online. Some include posting unlawful material, posting or “liking” content that falls outside the norms of acceptable social behaviour (such as hate speech), sharing a petition in protest of a policy or minister, and airing “significant” workplace grievances.
Other less risky behaviours to be wary of include criticising or praising the government or other political parties, sharing an online fundraiser, or engaging in social debate.
Mediums such as private emails, group chats, or direct or private messages on networking sites can also carry a risk, the guidance warns.
“While on their face comments made through these channels present a low risk to public confidence, private correspondence does not always stay private,” it says.
“Employees need to exercise judgement in their private correspondence, and consider the likelihood and consequences of it being shared more broadly than they anticipated.”
An employee’s historical online behaviour can still affect public trust and confidence, with the guidance recommending that employees periodically review their “online footprint” when they join the APS, and when their roles change or they are promoted.