Social media: beat the journos, don't say anything stupid

By Stephen Easton

September 17, 2014

Craig Thomler and John Sheridan.

Australia’s chief technology officer says there are two easy ways for public servants to avoid the wrath of social media policies: avoid the temptation to “say stupid stuff” online and make sure you spend most of your workday doing work.

Speaking at a Digital Culture Talk on social media in the public sector at the National Library yesterday, John Sheridan (pictured, right) played down concerns that in the age of online political debate public servants are being shut out of the conversation.

“The challenge, I think, that we have to deal with here is something that’s really not that hard to understand: don’t say stupid stuff,” the chief technology officer said. “That’s really all it is. You wouldn’t do it on the bus, you wouldn’t do it at a barbecue; don’t say it online either.”

Sheridan reminded the many public servants in the audience that the policy about online comments was exactly the same as the policy about offline public comment. He also moved to assure them their social media use was not a major concern to their employers.

“I know from talking to my colleagues in the Australian Public Service Commission that a very small percentage — single digits or less — of code-of-conduct investigations have anything to do with an initial problem caused by social media,” Sheridan said. “It isn’t that big an issue for us.”

Delib Australia managing director Craig Thomler (pictured, left) brought up concerns among public servants he has met in his work as a consultant about their ability to contribute to political debate online. Despite their right to participate in robust public political debate, Thomler said he knew a lot of public servants who had “retreated from social media” or “basically gone into hiding” by using anonymous accounts.

He said some departments he was familiar with had “almost a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy” regarding online political expression. “You have anonymous accounts, you say what you think is important and you contribute in the ways you feel is right — but you don’t actually declare that it’s you or connected to the work you’re doing,” he explained.

“We’re now the source of the news, not necessarily the subject of the news.”

The former public servant turned consultant later urged those currently in the government’s employ to exercise their implied constitutional right to freedom of political communication, “as citizens and as educated participants in the debate that is our democracy”. Thomler told the audience that social media rules “go quite a long way, in that they basically say that harsh and extreme comment about any elected politician or any government policy can actually be seen as a breach of the code of conduct”.

“And that’s problematic, in a way, because there are very few aspects of public life that government policy isn’t going to touch on,” he said. “[Public servants] often feel they have something to say because they know what’s going on or they’ve got a more experienced perspective, but they also feel constrained by the guidelines.”

Thomler questioned whether public servants could get into hot water by engaging through social media with public sector organisations like Centrelink or the Child Support Agency in a personal capacity: “Are they actually constrained more than other citizens? And if so, is that constraint appropriate or is it too far?”

In his speech, Sheridan also said that public service leaders were not concerned about staff using social media at work — using phones, of course, given it’s usually blocked on government computers.

“I know this has been a constant concern — that people aren’t allowed to use social media at work,” he said. “I find this a little problematic, because if everyone’s using their phones to use social media, and people aren’t walking up and down the cubicles making sure you aren’t using your phone, how do they know you’re not using social media? Of course [public servants] can use social media at work now.

“Some can do it officially, as part of their work … but [public servants] can also do it personally, all the time, and indeed they do, and indeed they don’t get into trouble, all the time.

“They can tweet, they can use Facebook, they can do those things just as they can text their friends — as long as what they’re doing primarily at work is their job.”

Who says mandarins aren’t social media savvy?

Sheridan also used the forum to defend the public service’s record on professional use of social media. He said public servants were already using it for a wide range of announcements, services and consultations, procurement, and to correct inaccuracies in the public domain.

He pointed to the federal government’s 30 official blogs, 58 YouTube channels, 24 Flickr pages, 192 Twitter accounts (with a total of about 1 million followers) and 136 official Facebook pages. The government has a combined 9 million likes, 6 million of those belonging to Tourism Australia.

“What you can see is that social media is mainstream in the public service now,” Sheridan said. “I would respectfully disagree with my colleagues on the panel because I think we’ve actually seen, over the last five years, very considerable adoption of social media for a whole range of useful reasons.”

The government CTO, who runs two Twitter accounts, used his Monday announcement of a four-year deal with tech firm Acquia to provide the new whole-of-government content management system as an example of social media’s power.

“That tweet got 1148 impressions in the first 24 hours: 35 people clicked on the links, 18 people retweeted it,” Sheridan said “It’s in about five online IT news articles today.”

He also noted the power of social media to compete with news outlets as a primary source, bypassing cumbersome media release processes.

“This has been a great advantage to us because, once upon a time, to get that level of coverage we would have had to go through about seven or eight iterations of a media release planning document. We would have had to get potentially a minister or the departmental secretary to sign off on it. We would have had to go through all sorts of release strategies and all sorts of things like that.

“Instead we wrote a blog post. We released the blog post and I tweeted about it and the next thing you know, it’s in the news about what it is we’re doing.”

Sheridan enthused about being able to communicate directly to the public or specific stakeholders without “a middleman” like The Mandarin. He noted that many online articles simply post such statements verbatim, and suggested that public servants were putting pressure on journalists to get a story out quickly by publishing online and using social media.

“If they don’t get the article out quickly, no one will want to read it because they’ll already have seen it by following the Twitter feed, and clicking on what we posted,” he said. “We’re now the source of the news, not necessarily the subject of the news.”

The new government content management system will power between 180 and 400 government websites using an online software service from Acquia on the open-source Drupal platform. Sheridan described it as a cost-effective way for Commonwealth entities to easily and cost-effectively create and manage websites without the burden of owning and managing software and infrastructure, which would allow them to focus more on their core business.

Work has already begun on migrating and to govCMS.

Image: Lannon Harley, National Library of Australia

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