In order to better manage and review what public servants have posted online, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet introduced new amendments to social media policies.
A particular new clause creating controversy is around the expectation that any awareness of another employee’s online activities which may breach any policy should be reported.
This includes posts which are “harsh or extreme in their criticism of the Government, Government policies, a member of parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that they could raise questions about the employee’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially.”
There are also sanctions for “gratuitous personal attack that might reasonably be perceived to be connected with their employment.”
This is in addition to existing guidelines and policy, but now increasingly blurs the lines for public servants about their rights and responsibilities in an online capacity. While there is a distinction between public and private uses, there is the expectation all posts adhere to the Public Service Act 1999, APS Codes of Conduct, and various social media usage guidelines.
In a professional capacity, guidelines also expect that APS employees respect confidentiality and carefully consider how they engage with the wider community.
For private, unofficial use, policy states that “APS employees may generally make public comment in a private capacity, so long as they make it clear they are expressing their own views.”
Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson does not see any restrictive issues with social media policy, saying that “public servants voluntarily and knowingly choose to accept these limits on their conduct when they accept employment”.
However, there has been comment around APS employees not being afforded the same recognition of constitutionally implied freedom of political communication as other Australian private citizens.
There are concerns that this was passed without adequate consultation with public servant and affiliated entities such as the Community and Public Sector Union, and as such, the appropriateness and justification of the policy’s introduction has been questioned.
Additionally, there has been recent controversy over use of social media monitoring software (a common practise by many organisations) to understand public discourse around current government affairs.
Particularly, pro-asylum seeker campaigner Vanessa Powell was identified as having an ”offensive remark” on a photo of protesters at the Villawood Detention Centre, where a friend of hers made a comment . The issue lies in whether or not the DIBP acted appropriately in then tweeting her to removed it from her Facebook immediately or the government would ”consider our options further”.
The tweets can be viewed below.
It is evident that the public perception of Government and it’s integrity is important, and that APS employees and Government officials should be mindful about what they post, how this can be interpreted, and any potential repercussions. However, equally important to consider is an individual’s right to express their views, and this should also relate to political opinions.
While this does not excuse illegal, blatantly disrespectful, offensive, or rude online behaviour, there should still be scope for opinion or questioning. After all, social media spaces are typically a public space with the intention of sharing information and stimulating public discourse, whether that conversation around affirmation or disapproval of current political events.