Public servants feel oppressed by social media rules

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday November 22, 2016

BELGRADE – JUNE 13, 2014 Social media website logos Facebook, Twitter and other printed on paper

The internet has granted billions of people the means to indulge in almost unlimited public self-expression and contribute to the great public discussions of their time, but have bureaucrats been missing out?

The Australian Public Service Commission recently asked federal public servants for their views on the question and has published over 5000 words of their responses (update: more than 13,000 words).

“As private individuals are allowed to be critical of the government, so too should regular public servants,” writes “Mathew” at the top of the list, going on to more or less describe the general principals of the rules as they stand. Directly below, “John” has a more forthright view:

“Democratic participation should be a right for every citizen or democracy is worthless. As a citizen I should be free to make any comment that any other citizen is free to make provided I stress that it is my personal opinion and I am not using specialist knowledge that would only be available to someone in my employment. There should be no other line for us to worry about crossing. Personally I have no truck with social media and never use it but that is my choice. The issue is free speech pure and simple.”

The recent consultation, which focused particularly on social media, followed the publication last month of the latest explanation of the current rules, which aim to balance the need for public servants to be politically impartial in their work and their own rights to political participation.

There’s a fundamental tension here that means the situation can’t be reduced to simple black-and-white rules, even with rights and responsibilities set out as clearly as possible, no matter how often senior public service leaders claim it’s easy to understand.

The idea that APS staff should be held responsible for failing to remove or contradict comments from other people on their social media posts was resoundingly rejected. And a lot of responses say the current rules and guidelines are so vague they are confusing. A “Matthew” thinks the APSC is aware of this:

“The write-up for this survey explains that you are hoping to make the current rules clearer. That suggests you’re aware that many public servants are confused about what kind of opinions they can express on the internet and social media, and in some cases hold back from giving opinions that they’re legally entitled to give, for fear of losing their job.”

The comment goes on suggest the results of the APSC consultation itself would be unreliable because federal bureaucrats “have already been silenced” and will be too afraid to tell the commission what they really think. That does not appear to be the case. But the fear is real, according to “Paula”:

“We currently have a situation where APS employees are afraid to even ‘like’ a news article that is mildly critical of any policy, due to the vagueness of the social media guidance provided.”

The long list of caveats and explanations that accompany the relevant parts of the code of conduct lead a lot of public servants to stay on the safe side rather than test the limits. A “Student of History” complained to the APSC about this chilling effect:

“Awesome — lets make sure public servants are too scared to make any comments that could be construed as political. Any broad reaching policy that makes people too scared to comment on a topic “just in case” is taking us down a road that allows Governments to abuse their power. People who work for the public service have just as much right to question the Government in a democratic society as the next person. If they don’t, then how democratic a society is it?”

Continuing directly down the page, “Silvia” says social media profiles that aren’t obviously linked to the employee’s work should be okay. Public service bosses generally believe their staff should be held accountable under the CoC even for comments made under a pseudonymous account, if it can be linked back to them.

“Silvia” also argues most public servants form political views because they are “good, engaged citizens” following the spirit of the law in a nation where voting is compulsory.

“Social media is private in nature and political opinions are a personal choice,” argues “Samantha”, who feels a ban on any association with a public service employer in private social media accounts would be a fair trade-off.

“Springsoft” said the discussion materials the APSC issued for the consultation process demonstrated the current system is confusing and open to individual interpretation. They added that political movements like the campaign for marriage equality are often highly politicised, but are seen as major positive social advancements in future.

The published responses appear to show significant support for a relaxation of the rules — or at least of how they are interpreted — to allow more freedom of political expression in a time when opportunities to use it have exploded.

There is also common acceptance of standards of behaviour that are generally expected by employers and accepted by employees in almost all organisations — things like not divulging privileged information, criticising the specific agency where one works about in-house matters, or acting as a spokesperson without authorisation.

A few feel the current rules are fair and clearly stated, but in response after response, it is clear that a lot of public servants feel they are being treated unfairly, or with contempt for their intelligence and trustworthiness.

“To imply that they cannot be trusted to comment responsibly on social media is to imply they cannot be trusted anywhere,” argues “Hannah”. “Why does the medium change things?”

The guidelines place a heavy emphasis on “people being employees of the APS first, and citizens of Australia second” in the view of “NS”, who points out one is a citizen before and after being a public servant. Some respondents reckon it’s all about the Constitution. Says “Clare” in a response that was copied and pasted by at least one other:

“The current social media requirements for APS staff are intrusive and compromise the implied right to political communication we have as Australians. Social interaction and communication increasingly takes place online. APS staff should be able to express political beliefs online, in the same way as at a dinner party or in a conversation with friends.

“APS staff are rightly allowed to attend political protests, join a political parties and engage in other political activities in their personal capacity. Expressing political opinions on social media should not be treated differently.”

“Deon” went further than most, claiming “public servants should be more empowered than others to speak out” and this should be guided by the public interest above their duplicitous elected representatives:

“Public Servants administer government initiatives for the benefit of the Australian populace, but in recent times it appears the government is attempting to gag public servants in an attempt to mislead the public on how effective and efficient these initiatives are.”

This sense that undue pressure to keep public servants quiet comes mainly from politicians was evident in other submissions, like one from “Bearish”, who claimed the system was breaking down because “the neutrality of the public service is now completely undermined”:

“We are no longer able to present technical advice for political tiers to make informed decisions. We are required to document only what the government of the day will accept. In this context, it is essential that public servants are provided the opportunity to share their insights and opinions outside the work environment. Otherwise public debate on issues cannot be fully informed as often public servants are more knowledgeable than even universities on the technical and practical sides of very sensitive issues.”

“Tom” sees merit in applying stricter rules to senior executives “given their higher public profile” — an idea shared by several others — while “Tanya” simply warns the APSC that “if you want creative, innovative and smart solutions, you will get people who think and have opinions!”

Not all the responses support a relaxation of the rules. As a second commenter named “Samantha” warns, the perception of impartiality is important for a career public servant as an individual, and for the service as a whole:

“When you as a public servant post anything publicly that could in any way be identified as being critical you create doubt in the minds of those who judge. Judgement can come from anywhere. Doubt in your ability to serve impartially erodes trust.

“You may publish something about another area of Government which you later end up working in — so there’s no false solace in that suggestion. Social media commentary never goes away — it is forever. To protect public servants from any erosion of trust now or in the future, I believe they should not be posting anything critical. Whether or not you say where you work on social media — people can find out easily — especially as you become more senior (not necessarily even as senior as SES).”

Others gave accounts of how the policy has been applied in specific agencies. “Peter” said his “extremely risk-averse” employers couldn’t tell him whether it was OK to have a political bumper sticker on his personal vehicle, or give a definitive yes-or-no answer as to whether specific social media posts were within the rules. He adds:

“I was told the agency relies on employees to refer to social media guidelines and use their best judgment, and that HR would “only get involved when a complaint or suspected misconduct matter is referred to them”. So you can see the current situation is that we’re basically commenting ‘blind’, allowing the agency to make a decision on our conduct after the fact. This is clearly unacceptable. APS employees deserve better, and deserve strong protections as Australians. The APS needs to realise criticism can be a good thing.”

According to “David”, one of his work mates “got written up for complaining about his new desk on Facebook” and he thinks that’s just plain unAustralian:

“The complaint was not unreasonable and was just a typical whinge about work that many Australians might have in private. It did not represent any particular insult on anyone. Yet he was written up for it.”

The APSC is still accepting comments on the matter and any supporting documentation through an online form.

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