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Public Service Commissioner insists bureaucrats are not being gagged

Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick.

Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

One of the nation's top bureaucrats has defended the right of government departments - including Prime Minister and Cabinet - to write their own social media policies and insists that Australia's bureaucrats are not being gagged or censored.

But Public Service Commissioner Stephen Sedgwick says public services bosses should consult the government's ethics advisory service before laying down the law on their employees' online activities.

Writing exclusively in The Canberra Times, the commissioner has weighed into the debate raging around public servants and their internet activities, denying that government workers were being gagged or censored.

PM&C caused a storm of controversy earlier this month by calling on its bureaucrats to dob-in co-workers who go online to criticise government policy.

But Mr Sedgwick says departmental staffers can avoid trouble by thinking carefully before going public with political comments on Twitter, Facebook or other online social media platforms.

He says departments have a duty to issue guidelines to their workers.

"Australian Public Service agencies have a responsibility to interpret these guidelines in the context of their work, and design their own policies and guide employees so they can make good judgements about whether to comment in their personal capacity and, if so, what to say, with confidence," the commissioner wrote.

"The Australian Public Service Commission, through the ethics advisory service, can assist in this regard."

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and its secretary, Ian Watt, Australia's most senior public servant, have refused to comment on its now notorious guidelines since they went public 10 days ago.

It is unclear whether the ethics advisory service was consulted about the rules.

Mr Sedgwick wants public servants to exercise common sense when expressing their opinions and recognise that their jobs give them a "special status" among citizens participating in public discourse.

“Public servants have long been asked to exercise judgement when putting forward their personal views, recognising the special status of their chosen profession,” the commissioner wrote.

“We want public servants who will be ‘of the community’ and no doubt public servants will share in the spectrum of beliefs that are found in the community.”

At least two public servants have found themselves out of a job as a direct or indirect result of their Twitter activities and several other cases remain in dispute.

Mr Sedgwick has repeatedly and publicly voiced his concern that they will not be the last and regularly warns rookie bureaucrats to think before they post.

"Material posted online effectively lasts forever, may be replicated endlessly and may be sent to recipients who were never expected to see it or who may view it out of context," the commissioner wrote.

"These features warrant very careful consideration when commenting online.

"Moreover, anonymity cannot be guaranteed. Ill-considered comments made online on the spur of the moment, whether using one’s real name or not, can have far-reaching consequences."

23 comments so far

  • I can understand some controls in the workplace, however, bureaucrats are paid for the hours they work and this is not 24/7. To claim that they own then after hours and deny them free speech and freedom of expression as individuals in their own right (while not at work), is definitely over the top and most unreasonable. It is clearly a reflection of a controlling government that that simply wants to silence any possible critics.

    Date and time
    April 16, 2014, 12:20PM
    • It not about denying free speech or freedom expression. It is about not releasing Govt department policies or information, by releasing information on the social media, this may result in wrong actions, consquences happening. Being an APS person you must be apolitical, you are part of the process in writing the policies or adminsitrating policies. So if you do not like this, you can leave, if you are an APS. But if you are not that is your choice to comment.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 12:58PM
    • Sorry, if you worked for a big company and just said nice things about them during your work hours, but let loose on your FB page when you got home from work saying negative things about them - you would put your employment with that company in jeopardy. It saddens me to think that public servants switch on and off their integrity: supporting their employer during work hours, and saying whatever they like outside of work hours.

      As a public servant you serve the current government. If you have gripes - don't write them on any form of media that can be public. The more influence you have, the more careful you need to be.

      The fact is that Canberra is a Labor town through and through, and the Public Service is dominated with this Labor culture - sadly, many of these public servants find it hard to serve a conservative Liberal government. Perhaps they need to find employment in an organisation that better suits their political priorities.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 1:48PM
    • If you worked for any employer and critised them in a very public way, you would probably not have a job. The APS is just like any other employer except they advice you ahead of time what is not appropriate.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 4:00PM
    • Hardase, it’s not about releasing policy and information at all. Not all public servants have access to ALL policy and ALL information of significance so would not be able to “release” it publicly anyway. It’s about expressing opinions about a broader range of matters including that which appears in the media and that which effects the public and the public are free to comment on. That may include matters that may have an impact on public servants in their private capacity (noting they are also members of the public in their private capacities) and or that of those closest to them in exactly the same way that other members of the public are free to do..

      Michah, “big companies” don’t take an oath to be honest, open and transparent , act with integrity and be accountable to the public and the parliament like governments do.

      Jane2, the employer is actually the individual agency that employs them and they make not make any comment that criticises that agency.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 5:25PM
    • @micah, I think you will find that public service serves the public, not the government of the day. The social conscience that requires is what leads to a greater lean to the centre or left (by nature more socialist), so that is how it appears. Providing frank advice is all that is asked, not kowtowing. That is the job of a staffer.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 5:32PM
    • SWGreg, almost, but not quite. Have a read of the current version of the Public Service Act 1999 - Part 1 Sub-Part 3(a) states that it serves the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public.

      Date and time
      April 17, 2014, 10:40PM
  • Sorry Felix, you might wish this was the case but as a matter of law it's not.

    In the APS this behaviour is regulated by a statutory code, part of which applies at all times ie in and outside the workplace, in and outside working hours.

    In the private sector employees are bound by the common law duty of loyalty and fidelity. There has been a string of recent decisions in the FWC where former employees of private sector firms have found out that they can't bag out the boss either, whether or not they do that in the workplace or the privacy of their own home.

    sceptical and proud
    running with scissors
    Date and time
    April 16, 2014, 12:43PM
    • As an ex-PS employee I can still recall the vigour with which dissenting opinion was crushed under the Howard years. As a Public Servant I was obliged to give my honest opinion on matters pertaining to my work, but if it wasn't what the "new" bosses wanted to hear you could find yourself in Fitzroy Crossing with an empty desk in front of you, overnight.
      Such paranoid control in the workplace is bad enough, it leads to tunnel-vision advice and bad, poorly informed decisions (which were idealogical in basis anyway), and it stifles the best minds from contributing, but to assume that this fear of alternative thought can be extended to the private lives of employees is akin to "thought control".
      I was an impartial and honest Public Servant, and proud to be so, but why does it then follow that I have no opinion to express other than the "Party Line"?
      Stalin would be proud of Abbott and co., just like the Howard years we are witnessing the relentless pursuit and ruthless crushing of ANY opinion which doesn't conform.
      Remember, the only true freedom you actually have is the freedom to make up your own mind - even if expression of that thought is banned under Abbott.

      Date and time
      April 16, 2014, 1:04PM
      • I just read the link to "Why public Servants should be impartial."

        It is self-evident that Mr Sedgwick has not been employed in a non-SES capacity in the Public Service for some considerable time. His reasonable-sounding words bear no relation to the coal-face political reality of the current Public Service.

        To all the public-service bashers out there, be VERY careful what you wish for.

        Date and time
        April 16, 2014, 1:10PM

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