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The Australian Public Service Commission has released its updated guide to social media use by Federal public servants. The guide, Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees, leaves absolutely no room for employees to make critical comments of any of their ministers, superiors, or departments.

Furthermore, it suggests public servants are liable to be disciplined even if they don’t promptly delete a critical post on their social media account by an outsider.

First brought to light by a critical article in The Australian newspaper, the nine-page, 3,000+ word guide goes into some detail as to what is and what is not acceptable.

Now listen up!

“As members of the Australian community, Australian Public Service (APS) employees have the right to participate in public and political debate,” the document begins.

“But this is not an unlimited right. APS employees have particular responsibilities under the Public Service Act 1999 that come with being employed as a public servant by the Commonwealth of Australia. In some cases, these responsibilities limit their ability to participate fully in public discussions, including on social media.”

Criticism is a definite no-no. Whether it is the employee’s current agency, Minister, previous agency, or observations of a person, the guide is clear to begin with: “Criticising the work, or the administration, of your agency is almost always going to be seen as a breach of the Code. The closer your criticism is to your area of work, the more likely this will be.”

The guide then goes on to warn that critical posts are not allowed after hours or in a declared private capacity, or even anonymously: “Even if you don’t identify yourself you can still be identified by someone else.”

And just in case you’re wondering, your right to freedom of speech is, well, worthless: “The common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression. This right is subject to limitations such as those imposed by the Public Service Act. In effect, the Code of Conduct operates to limit this right.”

The commissioner responds

The Australian Public Service Commissioner The Hon John Lloyd has responded to the detailed article published by The Australian newspaper, declaring it to be misrepresentative:

“The use of social media by employees requires discretion and judgement,” he writes. “For this reason it is important that all employers, including those in the APS, ensure their employees clearly understand the expectations of their behaviour when they use social media.

“The APSC consulted extensively with APS agencies and employees in late 2016. This consultation indicated that the policy settings did not need to change, but that current obligations were not well understood by employees. The CPSU encouraged its members to participate, and made a submission.

“It is not more restrictive than previous guidance. 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 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.”

Straight from the Trump playbook: The Greens

Greens employment spokesperson Adam Bandt MP slammed reports in The Australian that the Turnbull government will impose restrictions on public servants criticising his government on social media.

"There must have been a few paragraphs missing from the leaked Trump/Turnbull transcript, because this latest crackdown on the public service is straight from the Trump playbook," said Mr Bandt.

"If anyone challenges Trump, they get fired. Malcolm Turnbull, in his desperation to hang onto power, is trying to do the same.

"Holding public servants responsible for what others post on their page is the stuff of the thought police. Your job shouldn't be in danger because someone shares a post on your page about marriage equality or action on climate change and you don't delete it.

"This is a ruthless assault on freedom of speech that would make any demagogue proud.”

The guide, Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees, is available here.
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                    [post_excerpt] => The updated guide to social media use by Federal public servants has been released.
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                    [post_date] => 2014-04-22 13:32:16
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                    [post_content] => Parliament House, Canberra

By Stephen Sedgwick,  Australian Public Service Commissioner.

The Australian Public Service Commission, and the Public Service Board before that, has for many years issued guidance to public servants about making public comment on matters connected to their employment.

The current guidance interprets how long-standing principles should be viewed in the rapidly changing online world.

I therefore read with some disappointment The Canberra Times editorial on [April 14th], "Moral panic plagues the bureaucracy", which misrepresents Australian Public Service guidelines on public comment by members of the APS.

It is not the case, as the editorial implies, that there is a new guideline that warns staff they may breach the Public Service Act if they post harsh or extreme political comment.

As long ago as 1995, the commission advised public servants to beware of situations which might render public comment improper, including:

"Where public comment, though it has little or no connection with a public servant’s normal duties, is so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the government or its policies that it indicates that the public servant concerned is incapable of professionally, efficiently or impartially performing his or her official duties."

Public servants have long been asked to exercise judgement when putting forward their personal views, recognising the special status of their chosen profession.

But as others have said, public servants are not second-class citizens - we want public servants who will be "of the community" and no doubt public servants will share in the spectrum of beliefs that are found in the community.

We also want public servants who have a strong sense of their public service responsibility and, in consequence, will subordinate their private interests to their public duty when necessary.

The public duty of APS employees is expressed in the APS values and code of conduct.

This includes the requirement to be "Impartial: The APS is apolitical and provides the government with advice that is frank, honest, timely and based on the best available evidence."

This value gives Parliament and the public confidence that public servants will serve faithfully the government of the day and deliver government programs to the community professionally, irrespective of their own views and beliefs about them.

The guidelines I have issued to assist public servants to make good decisions in these matters recognise that, generally, public servants may comment publicly without compromising their employment. But there are some limited circumstances where it is not appropriate to do so when acting as a private citizen.

Examples include when this would raise questions about an employee's capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially; where comment is so strong in its criticism of an agency's administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace; or where the comment is a gratuitous personal attack that might be reasonably perceived to be connected with the employee's employment.

Whether an employee's impartiality could reasonably be questioned - either by a minister, another member of Parliament irrespective of their party allegiance, or a member of the public - would depend on the circumstances.

Relevant factors include the duties of the employee, their seniority, the environment in which they are making comment, and the nature of what they say and how they say it.

A junior staff member providing back office functions, for example, is less likely to have their capacity to perform their duties called into question by commenting on a controversial social issue than a senior policy adviser.

Such considerations apply whether the public comment is made online or in some other forum.

As the editorial acknowledges, the Australian Public Service Commission’s guidelines make clear the nature of online communication means that comments posted online are immediately available to a wide audience.

Material posted online effectively lasts forever, may be replicated endlessly and may be sent to recipients who were never expected to see it or who may view it out of context. These features warrant very careful consideration when commenting online.

Moreover, anonymity cannot be guaranteed. Ill-considered comments made online on the spur of the moment, whether using one’s real name or not, can have far-reaching consequences.

Australian Public Service agencies have a responsibility to interpret these guidelines in the context of their work, and design their own policies and guide employees so they can make good judgements about whether to comment in their personal capacity and, if so, what to say, with confidence.

The Public Service Commission, through the ethics advisory service, can help in this regard.

In this respect, the APS is responding to developments in social media in the same way that any responsible employer does.

This article was originally published in The Canberra Times.
                    [post_title] => Why public servants should be impartial
                    [post_excerpt] => Australian Public Service Commissioner, Stephen Sedgwick, argues that those employed by the government have long been asked to exercise judgement and discretion if entering into public debate.
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The Australian Public Service Commission has released its updated guide to social media use by Federal public servants. The guide, Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees, leaves absolutely no room for employees to make critical comments of any of their ministers, superiors, or departments.

Furthermore, it suggests public servants are liable to be disciplined even if they don’t promptly delete a critical post on their social media account by an outsider.

First brought to light by a critical article in The Australian newspaper, the nine-page, 3,000+ word guide goes into some detail as to what is and what is not acceptable.

Now listen up!

“As members of the Australian community, Australian Public Service (APS) employees have the right to participate in public and political debate,” the document begins.

“But this is not an unlimited right. APS employees have particular responsibilities under the Public Service Act 1999 that come with being employed as a public servant by the Commonwealth of Australia. In some cases, these responsibilities limit their ability to participate fully in public discussions, including on social media.”

Criticism is a definite no-no. Whether it is the employee’s current agency, Minister, previous agency, or observations of a person, the guide is clear to begin with: “Criticising the work, or the administration, of your agency is almost always going to be seen as a breach of the Code. The closer your criticism is to your area of work, the more likely this will be.”

The guide then goes on to warn that critical posts are not allowed after hours or in a declared private capacity, or even anonymously: “Even if you don’t identify yourself you can still be identified by someone else.”

And just in case you’re wondering, your right to freedom of speech is, well, worthless: “The common law recognises an individual right to freedom of expression. This right is subject to limitations such as those imposed by the Public Service Act. In effect, the Code of Conduct operates to limit this right.”

The commissioner responds

The Australian Public Service Commissioner The Hon John Lloyd has responded to the detailed article published by The Australian newspaper, declaring it to be misrepresentative:

“The use of social media by employees requires discretion and judgement,” he writes. “For this reason it is important that all employers, including those in the APS, ensure their employees clearly understand the expectations of their behaviour when they use social media.

“The APSC consulted extensively with APS agencies and employees in late 2016. This consultation indicated that the policy settings did not need to change, but that current obligations were not well understood by employees. The CPSU encouraged its members to participate, and made a submission.

“It is not more restrictive than previous guidance. 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 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.”

Straight from the Trump playbook: The Greens

Greens employment spokesperson Adam Bandt MP slammed reports in The Australian that the Turnbull government will impose restrictions on public servants criticising his government on social media.

"There must have been a few paragraphs missing from the leaked Trump/Turnbull transcript, because this latest crackdown on the public service is straight from the Trump playbook," said Mr Bandt.

"If anyone challenges Trump, they get fired. Malcolm Turnbull, in his desperation to hang onto power, is trying to do the same.

"Holding public servants responsible for what others post on their page is the stuff of the thought police. Your job shouldn't be in danger because someone shares a post on your page about marriage equality or action on climate change and you don't delete it.

"This is a ruthless assault on freedom of speech that would make any demagogue proud.”

The guide, Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees, is available here.
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            [post_excerpt] => The updated guide to social media use by Federal public servants has been released.
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Freedom-of-Speech