Friday, December 23, 2011

Is inappropriate social media use really an issue for government?

With some of the concerns and processes I've witnessed in government it would be easy to draw the conclusion that hundreds or even thousands of public servants are using social media daily in ways that damage the reputations of their departments and the government.

Fortunately, a couple of articles I saw yesterday have given me a place to start to look at the realised level of risk of inappropriate social media use by trained and well-governed public servants.

The Australian reported Public servants' pay docked over Facebook comments and SmartCompany followed up with Bureaucrats disciplined over work-related comments on Facebook made on home computers.

Both articles referred to information from the Commonwealth Department of Human Services (DHS). Over the 2010-2011 year four DHS employees had been investigated and found to have made inappropriate use of social media (well, one case referred to private email use, but let's let that one go).

I was intrigued by these articles as, to my knowledge, they represent the first time that inappropriate social media use by public servants at a Commonwealth level has been reported in the media.

To quote the Smart Company article,

The Department of Human Services says there were four code of conduct cases involving the inappropriate use of social media in 2010-11 - three related to work-related comments posted on Facebook from the individuals’ private computers. 
The other case was about material sent from the employee’s private email account.
“The incidents all involved work-related misconduct that contravened their Australian Public Service obligations,” the department said.
According to The Australian, one worker had had their job classification cut, the second was given a 5% pay cut over 12 months, and the third was reprimanded.
The fourth employee no longer works for the department.
I am very glad to see that this inappropriate conduct was managed effectively using existing business policies in government - noting that the DHS has made great steps forward in the social media space, establishing a social media policy and working to ensure staff are aware of it and how it aligns with the APS Code of Conduct.

I am not quite sure what the staff concerned did, this wasn't explained, however as there's been no major media blow-outs from the actual incidents, I'm going to assume that the transgressions were relatively minor - bullying, inappropriate language about work colleagues or similar breach activities, rather than leaks of Cabinet-In-Confidence documents, naked photos of colleagues released online or similar major public indiscretions.

Given we now have a public incident at Commonwealth level, I decided to use it to do some evidence-based analysis on the actual risk of inappropriate use of social media to agencies.

Let's start from the top.

It has been reported that DHS had four employees go through a formal code of conduct investigation based on their personal social media activities in 2010-2010 (and again we're letting go that one of these four was actually related to email use - not social media).

Now I happened to have been able to find out from IT News that the DHS conducted 197 formal code of conduct investigations in 2010-11. These four social media-related investigations accounted for 2% of these investigations by the DHS in that year.

Broadening this out, DHS has about 37,000 employees, so the four employees who were investigated equals 0.0108% of their staff. Note that's not 1% of staff, that's one-hundredth of one percent.

In Australia around 59% of people use social media personally in some form (62% of internet users, with internet users being 95% of the population). Let's be conservative and estimate that only 40% of DHS staff use social media personally - well below the average for all Australians.

On this basis there are about 14,800 DHS staff members using social media personally. Of these, four were reported to be using it inappropriately and investigated. That's 0.027% of the staff at DHS using social media personally. Again, that's not 2.7%, it's 27 thousandths of one percent.

So  27 thousandths of one percent of DHS staff estimated to be using social media personally during 2010-11 were investigated for code of conduct breaches.

That's not many, but let's go deeper...

Nielsen has reported that Australians are the most prolific users of social media out of all the countries they measure. We spend, on average, 7 hours and 17 minutes using social media each month.

Let's assume, again, that DHS staff are below average for Australians, that those DHS staff using social media are only spending 5 hours using it each month. On this basis, with an estimated 14,800 DHS staff using social media, their personal use for 2010-2011 would be 888,000 hours (37,000 days or just over 101 year of continuous use).

In those 888,000 hours there were four reported code of conduct investigations - that's 0.00045% of the time spent online through the entire 2010-11 year, assuming they each were an hour in duration.

If you assume DHS staff are average Australians, the percentages shrink dramatically further.

To sum up, the information from the DHS suggests that the risk of social media misuse by public servants is extremely low.

There were no indications of significant impact due to the four incidents, therefore I assume that the consequences were minor.

So on the basis of an extremely low risk and minor consequences, the risk of social media to a government Department (such as DHS) is negligible - and easily mitigated through appropriate management procedures (a policy, guidance and education).

So for any agencies still hanging back from social media, consider the evidence, the mitigations you can put in place, the potential benefits of engagement AND the risks of not using social media (reduced capability to monitor key stakeholders/audience views, inability to engage citizens in the places they are gathering, no ability to counter incorrect information or perceptions and so on).

You might find that your current strategy of non-engagement is far more risky.


  1. Thanks for sharing your analysis! Here in the U.S., I would say yes, Social Media is a HUGE issue for government. (I don't encourage non-engagement, though.) Check out what happened in one city:

  2. I don’t know Kristy I just Googled ‘united states controversy’ and I couldn’t find anything about social media there.

    I’m sure I remember people saying stupid things prior to social media existing.

  3. Hi Kirsty, one example of a politician at US local government level making an inappropriate comment via social media doesn't provide much evidence of there being a huge issue in the US.

    I would ask whether the concern was the medium or the message - Troy's Mayor's comments would be considered inappropriate no matter which medium she used to communicate them.

    This indicates a failure of leadership, not a issue with a particular medium.

  4. I work at a local government agency in the northwestern United States and I would agree that the perception of risk is overblown and often used to justify personal agendas. When people use common sense (and they don't always do that) the risk appears quite small and the rewards are very attractive.

    Thank you for another excellent and thoughtful post Craig. I wish we could bottle your level headed approach on these issues.

    Justin Houk

  5. I think sOcial media is an overhyped issue for government. All agencies should have existing code of conduct behaviours and communication policies. The fear is born out of the unknown, but social media is just another communication channel, nothing more nothing less. The fear of use is completely irrational, everything an employee can do on social media can be done before it. The other thing is government agencies let people drive vehicles on the road, thisis an activity where mis-use can have fatal consequences, but people are still entrusted to behave correctly to do their job. The worst social media can do is reputation. It is time to stop the fear and get onboard