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Public Service Commissioner insists bureaucrats are not being gagged

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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."