Social media guidelines for Australian public servants: No ‘liking’ of anti-government posts

By @chelean on
A Facebook icon is shown on a Samsung Galaxy III mobile phone in this photo illustration in Encinitas, California, January 30, 2013.
A Facebook icon is shown on a Samsung Galaxy III mobile phone in this photo illustration in Encinitas, California, January 30, 2013. Reuters/Mike Blake

Australian public servants are now forbidden to like, share or post anti-government on social media. On Monday, the Australian Public Service Commission updated its social media guidelines for government employees, holding them accountable for failing to project impartiality online.

The commission has reinforced the rules that public servants must abide to appear impartial in their roles. It forbids them to criticise their departments through posting online, including liking another post or comment, sharing materials, commenting on, and even joining social media groups about anti-government posts.

“As members of the Australian community, Australian Public Service (APS) employees have the right to participate in public and political debate,” the page reads. “But this is not an unlimited right. APS employees have particular responsibilities under the Public Service Act 1999 that come with being employed as a public servant by the Commonwealth of Australia. In some cases, these responsibilities limit their ability to participate fully in public discussions, including on social media.”

These criticisms include posts targeting the prime minister, the shadow minister, the leader of the Opposition, spokesperson from minor parties and the employees’ agency. As the APSC explained, the public may assume that an employee of an agency that they have an insider’s perspective on the agency’s policy, conduct and performance. Criticising the government would raise concerns about the employee’s impartiality and undermine the integrity and reputation of their agency.

If an employee published an anti-government material, even a disclaimer that their views don’t represent those of their employer could still subject them to a Code investigation. It is the employees’ responsibility to clarify posts in a way that doesn’t breach the Code as well. For example, choosing an “angry face” icon as reaction to a Facebook article isn’t enough; the employee must also clarify that they are sharing a shared post because they disagree with it and just want to draw it to someone else’s attention.

The APSC also said that it doesn’t matter if an employee is impartial at work. “The question is whether the people you work with, the government you serve, and the clients you assist – from the Minister’s Office to the people on the other side of the counter – are just as confident that you will treat them professionally and impartially. What you say in your own time on social media can affect that confidence and the reputation of your agency and of the APS.”

Community and Public Sector Union national secretary Nadine Flood, on the other hand, said that the APSC’s new rules were “overreach” and that they fail to strike a balance between a citizen’s right to participate in democratic debate and show their impartiality.

“It’s completely unreasonable for a worker to face disciplinary action over a private email or something as benign as ‘liking’ a social media post,” she said. “Of course there needs to be limits, but this policy goes too far. The notion that the mum of a gay son who happens to work in Centrelink can’t like a Facebook post on marriage equality without endangering her job is patently absurd.”