Public servants’ comments on social media rules go missing

By Stephen Easton

Wednesday November 8, 2017

Social media rules for public servants are entirely reasonable and simple to understand, if you ask agency leaders or public service commissioners like the Australian Public Service workforce chief John Lloyd. But if you ask rank-and-file employees, as Lloyd’s agency did one year ago, you will hear from many they are a bit too strict.

At the time the Australian Public Service Commission published some points for discussion and a very long series of views from public servants about what they should and shouldn’t be allowed to say on social media, and how they should respond to what other people say.

Now, their views have been removed from the APSC website. A lot of the comments can still be read in an article published by The Mandarin but the links back to the source material were broken.

The consultation process fed into the APSC’s latest guidance on how public servants can avoid getting in trouble for what they post on Facebook or elsewhere.

“This consultation indicated that the policy settings did not need to change, but that current obligations were not well understood by employees,” according to a recent statement from Lloyd.

An APSC spokesperson told us they had taken the documents down because the consultation had been completed but they agreed to send us a copy so we could fix our broken links. So far we have only received the discussion paper.

[Update: we found the more interesting document in The Internet Archive Wayback Machine and updated the link in the original article.]

Public servants are mostly quite responsible about public comment. They generally understand and accept the restrictions of the job, and the responses showed this. At the same time, a lot want to exercise their right to have a say on the political issues of the day, as they are told they can, within certain limits.

Those limits themselves, in legislation, have not changed. The question is how they apply in the age of the internet. The APSC is concerned that the ease with which written comments can find their way into the public domain means that even a private email or a text message could be considered public comment, if it ends up that way.

Quite a few of the respondents had a different view, however, and made cogent arguments in favour of 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. One might observe there is no crisis of bureaucrats speaking out of turn and undermining their leaders, whether elected or the few unelected officials who can talk about their work.

A lot of last year’s responses demonstrated sensible and mature attitudes. There was widespread acceptance that employers can expect certain standards of behaviour and staff should not divulge inside information, criticise their employer in public, or act as a spokesperson without authorisation.

A few felt the rules were already fair and clearly stated, as they were a year ago, but they were in the minority as far as The Mandarin can recall. Response after response showed public servants felt they were being treated unfairly, or with contempt for their intelligence and trustworthiness.

There was considerable backlash against the new guidance, with most news outlets running the angle that strict new rules had effectively been imposed. In a rare occurrence, the Community and Public Sector Union republished an article from The Australian.

The newspaper got a copy of the new guidelines and was even able to interview Lloyd ahead of the announcement, but the commissioner wasn’t happy with how the story turned out.

Technically, the article was not accurate, as the APSC argued, and The Mandarin reported. The commission agreed that its guidance does not actually change the law; if a case goes to a tribunal or court, the official interpretation of the rules can always be challenged.

“It is not more restrictive than previous guidance,” said Lloyd. “Rather, it clarifies the parameters around what public servants can and cannot say, and should give greater confidence to APS employees when they are participating [in] online activity. Submissions to the review indicated that aspects of the previous guidance was unclear and ambiguous, and that revised guidance should be simpler and easy to understand.”

It is hard to see how last year’s consultation process influenced the new interpretation of the same old rules, especially if its results are not publicly available.

 Image: William Iven.

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