Australian officials warned to stay impartial online

By on 15/08/2017
Australian public servants could face formal disciplinary action by clicking ‘like’ on Facebook or Twitter (Image courtesy: Jason Howie).

Officials who ‘like’ or share posts that criticise the government on social media could be in breach of their code of conduct, employees of the Australian Public Service have been warned.

Sending an email to a friend, joining a Facebook group or failing to delete “nasty comments” posted on your page by others could also infringe the code, while posting anonymously is no defence, according to tough new guidance issued by the APS last week.

‘Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees’ gives a detailed account of how the APS code of conduct imposes limits on its employees’ freedom of speech in relation to social media, with posts by senior officials deemed particularly sensitive.

The legally-binding code requires APS employees to behave at all times in a way that upholds its values of impartiality and professionalism as well as the integrity and good reputation of their agency and the service, the guidance states.

The document stresses that deciding whether to make a comment or post material online is a matter of “careful judgement” rather than a “simple formula”, and sets out the risk factors that employees should consider when making such decisions.

“Criticising the work or the administration of your agency is almost always going to be seen as a breach of the code,” it states. “The closer your criticism is to your area of work, the more likely this will be.

Hands off the politicians

“Criticising your minister or the prime minister is just as risky as criticising your agency. Equally criticising your shadow minister, the leader of the opposition or the relevant spokesperson from minor parties, is also likely to raise concerns about your impartiality and to undermine the integrity and reputation of your agency and the APS generally.”

Criticising other agencies is also risky, according to the guide, which notes that “your work in previous agencies has a lingering effect”. Comments on agencies that you have never worked in “might be made public and taken into account, if you apply for a job there later”.

Parliament House in Canberra (Image courtesy: CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation)).

“As a general guide, the more senior you are in the APS, the more likely it is that people will believe you are privy to the real workings of government,” the guide states. “Your opinions will carry more weight and have a greater capacity to affect the reputation of an agency or the APS.”

Senior APS employees, or those with a particularly high-profile or specialist role, “need to be especially careful in considering the impact of any comments they might make”, while employees of the senior executive service, which provides strategic leadership and coordination for the APS, have a “particular responsibility”.

APS shows angry face to inappropriate ‘likes’

“If you ‘like’ something on a social media platform, it will general be taken to be an endorsement of that material, as though you’d created that material yourself,” the guide states. “Sharing a post has much the same effect… It may not be enough to select the ‘angry face’ icon, especially if you’re one of thousands that have done so.”

Posting material anonymously doesn’t guarantee your identity will stay hidden, as “many of us now have a digital footprint that makes it easy to find out who we are and, often, where we work”. The document notes that agencies often receive tip-offs about comments made by their employees.

And if your social media pages are locked to friends only but a friend then shares a critical post, this could also be a breach. The code was breached when you made the post, the document explains, while the friend’s action “just makes it easier to identify and investigate”.

Emails as risky as social media

Likewise, the code can be breached by emailing material to a friend because “there’s nothing to stop your friend taking a screenshot of that email, including your personal details and sending it to other people or posting it all over the internet”, according to the guide.

“Doing nothing about objectionable material that someone else has posted on your page can reasonably be seen in some circumstances as your endorsement of that material,” it adds.

Opposition MPs and the Community and Public Sector Union have criticised the guidance as “over-reach” and called for public servants to be allowed to participate in normal democratic debate, the Canberra Times reported.

Labor MP Andrew Leigh said: “It’s absurd to think that a public servant could face formal disciplinary action just because they click ‘like’ on Facebook or Twitter.”

For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

Chinese social media opening up public debate, university study finds

Global Government Summit report; part 3

Australian government launches push to harness benefits of big data

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

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