Tuesday, December 13, 2011

How should public servants report online volunteer work?

Last week the Department of Human Services changed its policy regarding staff who participated in volunteer activities - unpaid work undertaken on their own time.

The Department decided that, in order to protect against potential conflicts of interest, public servants had to report their volunteer activities to their Manager and seek approval to do it. Approval would last a year, after which time the employee would have to go back to their manager and ask again.

The story was covered lightly in a few news sources, including the Sydney Morning Herald in the article, Public servants told to seek approval to volunteer.

Putting aside the discussion over whether a public sector employer should exercise this level of oversight and control over the personal lives of their staff (a conversation for a different forum to my blog), I am concerned about how well this policy might work in the face of online volunteerism.

I haven't read the policy myself, however I wonder about the treatment of online volunteer activities, such as moderating an online forum or Facebook page for a volunteer group, building a website to support people in an emergency, curating Twitter conversations, managing an online chatline, curating pages in a wiki, correcting text in digitalized newspapers, adding records to genealogical databases, tagging photos for a museum, checking wavelengths to detect exoplanets, or establishing donation tools and encouraging friends to donate their own time and money.

These activities might be ongoing, or taken at extremely short notice - such as during an emergency. Often there may not be time to brief managers and seek approval. People would face the choice of either not volunteering (a net loss to the community) or volunteering their time and services and defying the policy.

I can personally think of five different volunteer activities I have undertaken online - just since returning from my honeymoon last month. Over a full year I might be involved in 30 or more separate online volunteer activities.

Real-world activities, such as manning a soup kitchen, painting a community centre or caring for old people may be easy to observe, quantify and classify as unpaid volunteer activity, however I am very unsure about how any agency policy might effectively cover the growing range of unpaid online volunteer activities in which people are now able to engage.

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