Public servants are unsure what they can say online without risking their jobs. Photo: David Paul Morris
Public servants remain confused about what they can write on Facebook and Twitter, and regularly seek ethical advice.
The Public Service Commission has warned senior bureaucrats to ensure their staff understand what's expected of them when they comment online, following several high-profile cases of alleged misconduct.
The latest State of the Service Report says employees are often turning to the commission's ethics advisory service for help on using social media "outside of their work role".
Former Immigration Department Michaela Banerji is fighting her sacking in court. Photo: Jay Cronan
It says there is "growing concern" among bureaucrats about how to use social networking websites without jeopardising their job, adding the issues is "a matter of some uncertainty for agencies and employees".
Former public servant Michaela Banerji is currently battling her ex-employer, the Immigration Department, in court after it sacked her in part for her Twitter comments.
Ms Banerji's tweets, made from an anonymous account, criticised the government's immigration detention policies.
She had previously applied unsuccessfully for a stay on her sacking, arguing the constitution provided an implied right of freedom of political expression.
Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick said Ms Banerji's case reinforced the commission's advice to staff "that anonymity cannot be guaranteed on the web (and in any event does not give an employee the right to engage in behaviour that is inconsistent with the APS code of conduct)".
The report also referred to the case of Tax Office worker Darryl Adams, who was disciplined for posting a derogatory, lascivious tweet about anti-porn campaigner Melinda Tankard Reist, albeit via an anonymous parody account.
"Increased online engagement has blurred the distinction between work and private life to a much greater extent than before and has raised questions about APS employees' right to make public comment using a medium that encourages strident debate but which also leaves an enduring, easily replicated record with no guarantee of anonymity," the report said.
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However, while some comments were clearly unacceptable, many were "far less clear", the report said.
"Adopting a wholly risk-averse position and advising employees to avoid making comment if in the slightest doubt about its propriety is unlikely to be conducive to harmonious working environments, or to building the capacity for sound decision-making.
"Nor do employees have an unfettered right to make any comment at all, in any way they please. Ultimately, there is no single, simple answer to the question of what an APS employee may post online, and there is work to be done to develop agencies' and employees' capacity to consider and weigh individual issues as they arise."
The commission warns public servants to avoid making comments publicly that may raise questions about their impartiality, such as "harsh or extreme" criticisms of politicians, parties or their policies.
The Public Service Act also requires staff to "act honestly, professionally, and with respect and courtesy".