Thursday, December 15, 2016

Australian Public Servants want the right to comment respectfully on political and policy matters online

I've been monitoring the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) public consultation on the current social media guidelines for Australian public servants (APS).

While they clearly aren't interested in comments from former or potential future public servants, having neglected to publish, or even link to, my comments - which I submitted to the APSC four weeks ago - there's been 109 public comments published from current public servants.

While there may be private responses to the consultation, or other public comments as yet unpublished, I've analysed the comments available and the viewpoint points consistently to one conclusion.

Australian Public Servants overwhelmingly want the right to comment respectfully on policy and political matters via the social media channels of their choice.

It's clear from the responses that social media is increasingly seen as a normal way to communicate - like chatting at a barbeque or on the phone - and public servants increasingly feel the medium should be treated in the same way, with an emphasis on the 'social' rather than the 'media'.

Only nine of the publicly published responses supported the current guidelines for public servants, which state (in part) that:

6.2.7 When employees make public comment in an unofficial capacity, it is not appropriate for them to make comment that is, or could be reasonably perceived to be:
  1. being made on behalf of their agency or the Government, rather than an expression of a personal view
  2. compromising the employee's capacity to fulfil their duties in an unbiased manner—this applies particularly where comment is made about policies and programs of the employee's agency
  3. so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a Member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about the employee's capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially
  4. so strong in its criticism of an agency's administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace—APS employees are encouraged instead to resolve concerns by informal discussion with a manager or by using internal dispute resolution mechanisms
  5. a gratuitous personal attack that might reasonably be perceived to be connected with their employment
  6. compromising public confidence in the agency or the APS.

 Whereas 90 of the published responses stated that, to quote from one respondent,
It is important to recognise that, as citizens, public servants should have the right to express an opinion on key political issues providing they do this respectfully and that the issues they are commenting on do not not relate directly to their area of employment.
This view was represented many times, using different words and phrasing...

I can see that there is an argument that there should be more caution about what is said about the area in which you work, but why should I be prohibited from making comment publicly about immigration policy or environment policy if I don't even work in that area?

...if I want to make a comment about the work of my department in my position as a customer of that department, or as a taxpayer who has an interest in the direction of government programs generally, I ought to be able to do so.

Remaining a-political should not preclude someone from criticising an individual's performance in government… Questioning obviously wrong policy is not straying from the APS code of conduct.

People should not be persecuted or railroaded for making public comment in their own personal time on any social media platform regardless of what the posting is about or responding to that is not work/employment related.

If the APS are censored from making any criticism of the government of the day and their policies, it's going to be even harder to encourage good people to want to work with us. 

As an employee of the APS I am 100% committed to upholding the Values and Code of Conduct whilst at work, and in situations that are in connection with my employment. As a citizen I have my own set of values and beliefs and shouldn't be forced to remove myself from public debate on social media platforms just because I am a public servant. 

Having the right to vote, by default, forces you to have a political opinion. While public servants retain the right to vote, they should also be able to voice that opinion.

We should have freedom of speech, so long as we speak respectfully about issues

Public servants should be allowed to say anything on social media during their unpaid time.

If it does not relate directly to the programs administrated by their agency, preventing APS employees from engaging in public discourse as private citizens is excessive and oppressive.

No matter how distasteful, racist, sexist, or whatever an opinion is, a person should have the right to express that opinion, provided it is not obviously linked to an organisation.

Public servants should have the same rights as any other Australian to comment on the government of the day and political matters.

Some were even more blunt,

Every vote counts. So EVERY voice should have the ability to be heard… Why is the government so afraid of the people?

It's unfair and oppressive to expect that because someone works in the public service that they can't be affected by political and social issues and therefore have opinions about the issues which may affect them and the people who are important in their lives. 

Why pretend we agree with everything we're told to do? It's like an atheist praying in Church to make their religious parents happy. As long as expression is respectful, it should be permitted.

When a politician says something stupid (which many of them do) I should be allowed to comment that they said something stupid.

While others questioned whether the government's current policy suggested that public servants were not trustworthy or that Australian democracy was broken,

In 10 years of working in Government I have only ever seen fantastic, impartial and evidence based decision making, and this is despite the fact that as humans, Public Servants naturally hold opinions. To imply that they cannot be trusted to comment responsibly on social media is to imply they cannot be trusted anywhere. Why does the medium change things? I.e. if we're questioning the integrity and trustworthiness of the Public Service; why should it be limited to social media? Either we are trustworthy everywhere, or we are not.

In Australia we have a liberal democracy. Public servants are part of that democracy. As such the boundaries on political and social commentary should be set quite generously for all, public servants included. In our history we have fought totalitarian regimes that have sought to inhibit free speech, my father and grandfather both fought for freedom and democracy. I see the curtailing of free speech that all citizens currently have as a huge infringement on hard-fought and won rights.

People who work for the public service have just as much right to question the Government in a democratic society as the next person. If they don't, then how democratic a society is it?

 Any democracy that cannot deal with criticism, regardless of the source, is no longer a democracy.

Only a few believed the current limitations were fair,

To protect public servants from any erosion of trust now or in the future, I believe they should not be posting anything critical.

I have worked for three federal government agencies in my working life and am proud to have done so; I believe in what these agencies stand for and deliver to the Australian community. I am not about to bite the hand that feeds me. If I find a significant shift in agency policy and practice which would be at odds with my own belief system and make being a-political in a professional role impossible I wouldn't hang on for any length of time I would simply leave.

No matter who your employer is, whilst you are in their employ, I believe you should respect that bond and not do or say anything that would damage that company's reputation.

A minority (14) suggested that public servants should conceal their connection to the public service while posting, to prevent an obvious link to their employer, while a few others pointed out that this wasn't really a protection at all.

My suggestion would be that APS employees should not list their Department or Agency as their employer on social media sites. They should not divulge any information that is not already available on public record and should not publically denegrate their employer. Ooutside these restrictions, I should be able to have the same rights as Australians who work in the private sector.

A more effective result could be achieved by instructing PS employees to remove any identification as a PS employee on their personal social media accounts and to not permit comments which identify their opinion as being related to their employment. Without any identification to the person's employment, it's difficult to see how someone can perceive an employee as making comment on behalf of their employer.

On the topic of whether public servants should be able to comment on their department and work, opinions were split. 36 respondents clearly indicated they believed that public servants should not comment on their own work and agency, whereas 14 directly stated that they should and a number of others were ambivalent.

The arguments were fairly clear on both sides.

Those opposed to talking about their work and agency said it could compromise their ability to do their job impartially, and potentially release information that shouldn't be public.

Those that supported talking about their work and agency pointed out that they were the best informed about their areas and could provide critical facts and information into the public domain in ways that could enrich and improve the public conversation. They also noted that at times they were also customers of their own departments, and as such should have the same rights as other customers.

...if I want to make a comment about the work of my department in my position as a customer of that department, or as a taxpayer who has an interest in the direction of government programs generally, I ought to be able to do so.

I should be able to comment on policies and topics in the public spotlight that affect me, my family or my field without fear of reprisal from my employer - particularly where the discussion is not at all related to my employer.

It is said that Qantas staff can't publicly criticise their employer, so nor should public servants. But Qantas doesn't confiscate 20% of my income. Qantas doesn't tell me what I can and can't buy, sell, import or smoke. Qantas doesn't tell me who I can and can't marry. Qantas can't send armed men into my house to arrest me. Qantas doesn't decide what my children are taught at school... Public servants have a duty as citizens to participate fully in political debate, including in relation to the programs they administer. 

A few believed the existing policy was clear,

I do believe the social media stance is perfect as it stands.

Yes they are clear. They do not appear to require revising.

But most respondents felt otherwise,
...this area is extremely grey and needs not only definitive clarification, but absolute determination as to what can and can't be said on political issues without fear of reprisals or recriminations.

Overall all respondents agreed on one point - that public servants should be respectful when they engaged.

Hi, I think that we should have the same rights and rules of every Australian Citizen. We should be able to speak our mind, even to the point of a difference of opinion with a Government Minister, providing we do not denegrate our department, our managers or colleagues.

It is now up to the APSC as to what they do with this information and how it affects the next iteration of the APS's social media guidelines.

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