Monday, May 31, 2010

Should public servants comment online on the operations of other departments?

A matter I've been mulling over for some time has been whether Australian public servants should comment on the operations of other government departments - at whatever jurisdictional level.

I am aware of several cases where individual public servants have commented on a difficult personal situation they experienced with another agency and received an informal complaint, via their own senior management, from the senior management of the other agency (who had used social media monitoring to track them down). Generally the complaint was that by commenting in a less than positive manner they were calling the integrity and reputation of another agency into question.

This raises major considerations for public servants as they engage online personally or professionally. While it is very clear from the Australian Public Service Code that public servants should uphold the integrity and reputation of the public service, there is less clarity around whether public servants should comment on operational matters that affect them personally.

It also raises questions about the role and rights of public servants - can they possess all the rights of other citizens as well as act responsibly as employees of the government? Are they entitled to raise valid concerns about government operated services based on their and their family and friends' personal experiences?

Here's some examples to clarify the type of situations that I see may emerge:
  • If a public servant is organising a passport for a family member and the process goes badly astray, can they comment online about the issues they experienced with the Department of Immigration?
  • If a public servant finds traffic is slowed to a stand-still due to road works during peak hour, can they complain online about the Roads Authority?
  • Finally, if a public servant is inappropriately treated by counter staff at a government shopfront, can they discuss their poor customer service experience online?
Over time there may be temptation for senior agency officials to attempt to shutdown this type of commenting by public servants, either by discouraging social media engagement or through staff education.

However as more public servants take to social media (and more social media users are employed by government), the frequency of these types of incidents is likely to grow.

I wonder how our systems will need to adapt.


  1. As a public servant, I separate my roles as "individual" and "impartial public servant". However, to protect both my personal and professional reputation, I prescribe separate identities to each. Personal comments - such as this - are attributed to an obviously fake name. Yet I use the same fake name for all online comments. Professional comments, would be cleared through my normal processes, and are so attributed. Where I wish to invoke my citizen right to make formal complaint, I do so through the formal channels using my personal details - which never identify me as a public servant.

  2. As a member of the public; I treasure my ability to harshly critique government which is performing poorly; particularly as it relates to my individual circumstances.

    Using informal complaints to stifle criticism should be stamped out; and swiftly.

    Regularly airing the dirty laundry is the only way it'll ever get noticed and given attention.

    The internet provides us with a greatly enhanced ability to communicate - it's generally recognized as being of great benefit in almost every aspect of human civilization.
    A culture of silence, secretly enforced, flies in the face of Government 2.0.

    I for one would actually like to know when an individual in government is trying to stifle criticism.
    I'd like to see the Streisand effect claim a few folks who are trying to stifle things - just a few, until the rest begin to understand.

  3. It's a very good question, and one way to handle it is (an Anon pointed out) to have separate online identities. The challenge is for agencies to respect this, and not spike the complaint as coming from an anonymous source.

    If you choose to use your real name, well and good - but if you're at all well known this may have some implications for how your complaint is treated. For example, a comment from {famous blogger} about an online service may or may not get more attention.

    It's a bit like using your work e-mail for non-work communication; if it's not an official communication (relating to my work) I'll use a private address.