About 1700 officials say they have been cyber-bullied with one third of the alleged victims nominating members of the public as the perpetrator.
The federal public service is mobilising against the latest emerging threat to its bureaucrats – cyber-bullying by the public.
The Public Service Commission warns the internet can be used not only to harass and intimidate public servants, but to open up “other avenues” of danger for Commonwealth officials or even their families.
The commission has sent an alert to managers in the 170,000-strong bureaucracy about the growing online menace and provided a self-help guide to managers whose staff are being threatened stalked or harassed online.
The commission's ethics manager Sarah Dinning has told departments in the circular that cyber-bullying of public servants needed to be taken seriously.
The alert advises victims to consider calling the police, taking out apprehended violence orders, or for public servants themselves to consider suing their tormentors.
Offenders could be prosecuted under federal laws covering the use of a “carriage service” to make death threats, intimidate or harass, or specific legislation about obstructing, threatening or causing harm to Commonwealth officials.
Previous reported cases of cyber-bullying in the public service have involved bureaucrats harassing one another or public figures, but the commission believes that the nation's public servants now face a clear-and present danger from external cyber-bullies.
The latest State of the Service report notes that about 1 per cent of the bureaucracy – or about 1700 officials – say they have been cyber-bullied with one third of the alleged victims nominating members of the public as the perpetrator.
“Cyber-bullying is an emerging issue for APS employees, associated with increasing use of social media and other online networking tools,” the circular says.
“Mechanisms may… be available to agencies and employees under state criminal laws, including laws relating to stalking, or under other laws relating to protection or apprehended violence orders, privacy, and discrimination."
The commission had put together a “Working Group on Cyber-bullying of APS employees by clients” with nine agencies and departments and sought advice from Australian Federal Police and the Attorney General's Department.
The commission's acting Merit Protection Commissioner Karin Fisher told The Canberra Times she had not seen any cases of “extreme” threats and that the most common form of harassment was blogs set up to harass public servants.
“Dealing with members of the public and what might be viewed as hostile or unacceptable behaviour from members of the public is not a new issue," she said.
“What is new is the online nature of it.”
“What this circular is about is a preventative measure to give agencies some assistance to help protect their employees if their interactions with members of the public online could be distressing for them or harmful.”
The Canberra Times reported on Tuesday that the Commonwealth's biggest department, Human Services, was stepping up its efforts to protect its frontline workers in Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency from physical threats and attacks.
The department says it has put in place “restricted service arrangements” and “customer management plans” for members of the public who are likely to threaten or attack DHS public servants.
Supervisors have also been trained in supporting employees who have been the victims of threats or attacks at work.