Our journalism usually sits behind a paywall, but we believe this is the time to make more of our content freely available to as many readers as possible. For more free coverage, sign up to COVID-19 Watch.

Yesterday we looked at what happens when someone at the heart of the APS decides to write a book about the processes he saw there. But the greater difficulty for the APS is not from the James Buttons of the world, but from a changing communications landscape and the changed expectations it brings with it.

The Australian Public Service’s guidelines for how public servants are to behave online, in either an official or a private capacity, were a long time coming: some interim guidelines were released in December 2008, were revised a year later and revised again at the start of this year. In between the second and third iterations came The Australian’s assault on Greg Jericho.

The iterations have seen a move from an earlier, more permissive approach, in which it was emphasized that public servants “are entitled to comment in a personal capacity on public issues” but should do it from home and not work, and always observe the Public Service Code of Conduct, to longer, more restrictive and detailed guidelines that urge public servants to ask themselves questions like “are these comments in line with how the community in general expects the public service to operate and behave?”

But at the same time, responding to the Gov 2.0 Taskforce, the government was encouraging “online engagement by public servants, involving robust professional discussion as part of their duties or as private citizens,” which it believed “benefits their agencies, their professional development, those with whom they are engaged and the Australian public”.

All iterations of the guidelines are predicated on two assumptions: that the public scours blogs and social media for evidence of bias among public servants or even people who are suspected public servants, so anything that calls into question a public servant’s ability to do their job professionally or impartially is problematic. The other is that employees of the government are in an important sense always on duty, are always somehow representing government, no matter in what context, no matter if they are speaking anonymously or pseudonymously; that they must always behave as if they are gathered round the meeting table at work.

Both are decidedly 20th century assumptions. But both retain some value. The Australian polity needs widespread confidence that the public service, as a whole, will impartially work to implement the policies of whichever party comes to power. The comments of individual public servants can influence that confidence, no matter how unrepresentative they might be. And engagement as a public servant brings with it certain responsibilities beyond those normally imposed on employees in the private sector.

There’s also the basic issue, of course, of keeping confidences. “The APS expects its staff to respect their duties of confidence to Ministers and colleagues. That expectation has not changed irrespective of the nature of new media formats,” a spokesperson for Prime Minister and Cabinet told Crikey.

In practice, the guidelines are poorly enforced and widely ignored. As an educated, wealthy and politically-informed community, Canberra is a natural cluster of online engagement. Large numbers of public servants are active on Twitter, often but not always pseudonymously, often but not always without identifying their departments. But anyone with any profile can expect a harder time. Ex-journalists appears to be a particular target for nervous public service managers. Freelance journalists Tim Byrnes was sacked by the Department of Broadband after less than a week for “serious reputation and security issues”, and when he told Fairfax of his sacking, the Department contacted ASIO.

Crikey is also aware of another recent case in which the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency ordered an officer, who had previously worked as a journalist, not to tweet at all in relation to politics or policies of any kind whatsoever, in a direct violation of the APSC social media guidelines; the Department then dismissed the officer after an anodyne tweet of theirs about Howard government policies appeared on the ABC’s Q&A feed. That decision was all the more bizarre given another team member had tweeted critically of government policy in other areas.

Consistency of application of guidelines across and even within agencies, where they can become the plaything of office politics and professional jealousy, is one problem. The other is a simple shift in expectations as social media becomes embedded in normal interactions. It’s a shift that has left the APS, with its focus on confidentiality, stranded. The APS mindset on social media is a Geocities one, from a time when “blogs” were something novel and online participation was a separate activity that one laboriously engaged in via your desktop browser.

As genuine social media platforms like Facebook became available, departments in Canberra blocked access to them on departmental desktops (some still do) and prevented access to unauthorized communication tools like gmail. The smartphone and tablet revolutions promptly voided such restrictions. Interacting online became the default option for many people; going offline became unusual; people, including public servants, moved relationships, interests, their work, the arguments they used to have down the pub, online.

But this transition has bypassed many managers in the APS, who only hear “media” in the term “social media” and regard online interconnectedness in the same way their mothers and fathers regarded the Letters Page of the Canberra Times. The growing risk aversion and political sensitivity of the APS has reinforced this sentiment: what would a tweet, even from someone not identified as a public servant, even praising government policy, look like at some point in the future? Could it come back in any way on the APS or a current or future minister? Best not to say anything.

Such a mindset, or feeling, besieged by and fearing social media, seriously hamstrings many areas of the APS from using online communication tools effectively in their official capacity and can drive talented social media users from the public service. That the guidelines about personal use are so widely ignored suggests that it’s time the leaders of the APS, most particularly Ian Watt and Public Service Commissioner Steve Sedgwick, reflected on the Gov 2.0 conclusion that online engagement is not the enemy many of their middle-level managers believe it to be.

Peter Fray

This crisis will cut hard and deep but one day it will be over.

What will be left? What do you want to be left?

I know what I want to see: I want to see a thriving, independent and robust Australian-owned news media. I want to see governments, authorities and those with power held to account. I want to see the media held to account too.

Demand for what we do is running high. Thank you. You can help us even more by encouraging others to subscribe — or by subscribing yourself if you haven’t already done so.

If you like what we do, please subscribe.

Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

Support us today