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Gov workers told their social posts are more believable than politicians' statements

Guidance to Australian public servants says citizens think they know 'what's really going on'

By Simon Sharwood, 7 Aug 2017

Australian government employees have been advised that their social media emissions carry more weight than pronouncements by ministers.

A document updated today and titled Making public comment on social media: A guide for employees, says “As an employee of your agency, people will assume that you have a high level of knowledge about what your agency does, and that you may have access to sensitive information. They will think that you know ‘what’s really going on’.”

Elsewhere, the guide says “As an employee in your agency the public may assume that you have access to your Minister and will have an insider’s perspective on their policy, their personal conduct, and their performance.”

Later, the guide has special advice for highly-ranked staff, suggesting that “As a general guide, the more senior you are in the APS [Australian Public Service] the more likely it is that people will believe you are privy to the real workings of government.”

The document's purpose appears to be threefold. One is the point out that the laws under which federal government workers serve include a Code of Conduct that “limit[s] their ability to participate fully in public discussions, including on social media.”

The guidelines argue the restrictions outlined above are not at odds with freedom of speech, but that government workers signed away their rights when they signed up to work for government and be bound by the Code of Conduct.

The second points out that social media posts can lead to the impression of bias, which could call into question a worker's ability to do their jobs.

“In general,” the document explains, “APS employees must not make public comment that may lead a reasonable person to conclude that they cannot serve the government of the day impartially and professionally.”

To retain public confidence and stay on the right side of the code, workers are advised that “Criticising the work, or the administration, of your agency is almost always going to be seen as a breach”.

Even “Liking” material critical of the government is problematic, as the document says doing so “will generally be taken to be an endorsement of that material as though you’d created that material yourself.” Sharing content on social media has the potential to get public servants into trouble, the document says, because that “has much the same effect” as writing a post yourself.

Public servants are also advised they must break the number one rule of the Internet - never read the comments. Here's why:

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.

If someone does post material of this kind, it may be sensible to delete it or make it plain that you don’t agree with it or support it.

A third line of argument points out that criticising an agency is likely to be career-limiting, given that upward moves in the APS often involve hops to new agencies.

The new guidelines have been labelled “overreach” by the Community and Public Sector Union. ®

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