Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Should Ministerial staff reveal their affiliations when commenting on political matters online?

Much of Australia's population doesn't realise there is a difference between Australia's public servants, who are employed and work for the state in an apolitical fashion, and Ministerial and other political advisers and staff, who are employed and work directly for politicians and political partie.

However there is a crucial difference at the moment as to how these two groups are expected to behave online.

Public servants work under a public servant code of conduct and, both federally and in most states and territories, there's also specific guidance for social media conduct. This generally includes the requirement to identify oneself appropriately when speaking officially (on behalf of an agency) or in a professional or personal context.

However the situation isn't the same for political staffers, who may not always operate under formal social media conduct guidance. This can lead to situations such as this one, Party trolls shall not pass, or be named, recently published in the Canberra Times.

Given the events on Australia Day, and much of human history, it's clear that a combination of passion, youth and ideology can lead to errors of judgement - some more serious, some more minor.

Now what may you get when you combine passionate young political party supporters with social media?

Clearly there's a lot of potential for risk, which could also affect other online engagement activities in government (by politicians or by agencies).

So how should this risk be managed?

Should there be a bi-partisan code of conduct for political staffers engaging on social media, perhaps even an independent watchdog to monitor activity?

Should individual parties 'manage their own backyards' - albeit in potentially different ways and with different tolerance levels?

Or is the current approach OK?

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