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No secrecy gag: SA’s new code for a social media era

South Australia has implemented a new code of conduct updated to reflect new patterns of engagement and bring it up to date with a more principles-based approach.

State Commissioner for Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri said that part of the thinking behind the update, which came into force last week, was to provide some clear guidelines — to outline expectations “not only around what is easy to identify”, such as corruption, “but things like professionalism and how to behave in the workplace.”

The new code, which is issued under the Public Sector Act 2009, builds on the principles outlined in the Act. It sets out the professional standards expected of every employee, aimed at driving cultural change within the sector.

The code replaces the 2010 version and is the result of a year of consultation with stakeholders, including unions representing public servants.

Ranieri told The Mandarin: “A lot has changed, we engage with citizens differently now compared to even five years ago.”

The new code is centred around eight key public sector values — service, professionalism, trust, respect, collaboration and engagement, honesty and integrity, courage and tenacity, and sustainability — built on the four “foundations” of public service — democracy, impartiality, accountability and diversity.

The values focus of the new edition “is based on the principle that creativity, mature judgement, and common sense are more valuable than a rigid set of rules”, says the Office of the Public Sector website.

It’s also aimed at fostering a sense of ‘one government’. Too often it feels like different departments are completely separate entities, thinks Ranieri.

It’s about ensuring there are standard principles, even if different agencies are contributing different things towards the shared goal.

“If I go from the Health Department to Attorney-General’s it shouldn’t look very different. It’s about making sure people are clear that the expectations are the same in one agency as they are in another,” she said.

But not everything is expressed in terms of values — certain issues, where it’s necessary to have clarity, are spelt out in more detail.

public sector values

One of these is the issue of public comment. In response to reports earlier this year that public servants had been “slapped with new secrecy rules”, the Office of the Public Sector has slightly changed the wording to clarify the intention of the policy.

To make it clear that the policy is not intended to prevent public servants from speaking at public events in a private capacity, it has added: “Public comment includes providing information or comment to or in any media (electronic and print), including posting comment on the internet and speaking engagements.”

Ranieri argues that the new public comment section is “not very different from how it was in 2010. We’re trying to modernise the language. We’re dealing with social media. … If you’re doing something in your official capacity, be clear about that. The right of freedom of speech in the private lives of our employees is still retained in the new code.” Public servants involved in community organisations such as schools will have no problem making comments at a school meeting, for example.

The code also has updated provisions on two other areas.

On the topic of handling official information, along with not disclosing official information or misusing information (as per the 2010 code) employees must also “not access or attempt to access official information other than in connection with the performance by them of their duties and/or as authorised.”

All employees in the public sector must now seek permission to take on other jobs, rather than only full time staff, as was the case previously.

Earlier this year NSW introduced a new code of conduct, to be in force by September this year, requiring behaviours in line with the values of integrity, trust, service and accountability, including that senior executives, including staff acting in those roles, will have to declare in writing their private interests that have the potential to influence, or could be perceived to influence, decisions.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.