The blur between our public and private lives in the digital age means that public servants need to be increasingly conscious of how they demonstrate integrity, fairness and honesty in all their dealings.
Much has changed over the past 10 years with the exponential growth of social media and the proliferation of smartphones capable of capturing every moment of our lives. Indeed the lines have become increasingly blurred between our personal and professional lives, as nothing we say or do can really be regarded as ‘private’ anymore. This blog will look at the realities of this situation for public servants and how they need to conduct themselves in social media, at ‘the pub’ and in the workplace.
In general, public servants are expected to be held to a higher standard of behaviour (and the more senior they are, the more that is expected of them). Indeed the three ideals of probity – integrity, fairness and honesty – are basic expectations. Both the Code of Conduct for Victorian Public Sector Employees and the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct (as well as their respective Caretaker conventions), provide specific guidance on how Victorian and Commonwealth public servants should conduct themselves when passing public comment, both on behalf of the government and privately. Both the APS and the VPS also have guidance on the use of social media.
The first rule of thumb for public servants is that social media should never be regarded as private, even if privacy settings are in place or posts are believed to be anonymous. A number of public servants, particularly in the strict APS, have now opted out of social media all together. Actions such as ‘liking’ a post or even having a political post in a feed, posted by someone else, could see a public servant falling foul of the relevant Code of Conduct.
The VPS highlights that public servants should be clear when their social media use is private or on behalf of the government. However, it is becoming increasingly common for officials to have single social media accounts to cover both. This is never a good idea. Using an account, for example ‘twitter’, to promote the great work of you and your agency, but also to criticise customer service of an airline, phone company or anything else in your personal capacity, is neither a good look nor a way to demonstrate fairness, integrity and honesty. Public servants should also be careful of other conduct on the internet, including commenting on media articles (irrespective of whether or not they are within the individual’s portfolio), commenting about other officials, including political staff, or the posting of information or photographs which could impact on the reputation of the individual or their agency.
‘Pub talk’ can also be a problem for public servants. Public servants need to remember that with the advent of smartphones anything they say or do can be recorded – and while friends may be friends today they may not be friends in the future. Yes, that’s right it’s not just ‘gossip’ you need to worry about, but recordings and photographs (even personal ones) can be made public in the future, and could compromise your career and your reputation, as well as your agency. Personal opinions about work and the people you work with, political matters and discussion about confidential matters (for example, procurements, investigations, prosecutions) should be strictly off-limit.
Finally, in the workplace there is also little scope for private opinion in the public service. Officials who pass personal comment on matters, particularly when those views are diametrically opposed to an endorsed government or agency approach, can only damage the integrity of processes and bring into question their fairness. Public servants need to be particularly careful of this where matters have been raised in the media and have elicited significant public comment. While government is likely to need to find ways to deal with those public comments, it is a requirement that public servants steer clear of any personal involvement, and ensure that their advice to government on such matters is consistent with the requirements of the relevant Code of Conduct.
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IMAGE: Used under licence from shutterstock.com
Julia Cornwell McKean.
[category courtheath's blog]
probity, integrity, code of conduct