Controversial APS social media rules relevant in disciplinary action: John Lloyd

Controversial APS social media rules relevant in disciplinary action: John Lloyd

Public Service Commission boss John Lloyd has defended a controversial social media guidance for APS employees, acknowledging the document could be used during disciplinary proceedings despite not being a formal employment policy.

Facing questions in a Senate estimates committee on Thursday, Mr Lloyd said the commission wanted public servants to "think before you post" and ensure any public comments are consistent with the APS code of conduct.

Australian Public Service commisioner John Lloyd.

Australian Public Service commisioner John Lloyd.

Photo: Jay Cronan

Asked if the document had "standing" in enforcement of conditions of employment, he said it would be considered in dealing with breaches and had been based on legal advice.

"I'd expect that if there was an issue about use of social media, that if I was the person reviewing the conduct of the employee, I think you'd expect that they would probably consult and look at the guide.

Unconvinced: Labor senator Jenny McAllister.

Unconvinced: Labor senator Jenny McAllister.

Photo: Dallas Kilponen

"I'd expect that to happen," Mr Lloyd told Labor senator Jenny McAllister.

"The responsibilities really emerge from the values and the code of conduct, and the guide is giving guidance about how to use social media to ensure you don't contravene the code of conduct and the APS values."

Commission staff confirmed Public Service Minister Michaelia Cash had been consulted about the guidance, which was developed using more than 200 submissions from members of public, government departments and existing policies from private employers.

The main public sector union and Labor labelled the social media guidance released in August as "overreach", warning government employees should be allowed to participate in normal democratic debate.

The document says public servants don't have unlimited rights of free speech, including warning against publicly criticising departments and agencies, the government and opposition or through expressing negative views on government policies.

Liking, reposting and sharing social media content could constitute a breach employment conditions, while the guidance warns selecting Facebook's "angry face" icon might not be sufficient to disassociate oneself from public comments.

The guidance warns against anonymous posting and the use of pseudonym, reminding public servants they can be traced through their digital footprint or via a "dob-in" to their department.

It calls for nuanced and thoughtful language, instead of blunt or inflammatory comments.

Criticism of any person, including current or former colleagues, could breach rules requiring respect and courtesy and could be seen as harassment.

Public servants could also face disciplinary action over content sent in private emails.

Mr Lloyd agreed government employees were entitled to holding and expressing political views, provided they did not "compromise their ability to operate as an impartial professional public servant.

"Certainly they have a right to political views but once you become engaged as a public servant, that right can be affected in some way, particularly in areas in which you work.

"My view is the more senior you become, the more likely that is to be a more sensitive issue," he said.

Asked if discussing politics at a dinner party could lead to a breach of the rules, Mr Lloyd said it would depend who was in attendance.

"If the conversation turned to a topic in which you had a particular insider, expert knowledge from your role in government, then it would be inappropriate to share that," he said.

"If it's a general discussion about the current state of politics or something, or issues that are running in public, it would probably be appropriate

"If it was close to their area of operation, they may have to be careful. I've had that experience myself," he said.

Follow Tom McIlroy on Facebook and Twitter

Tom McIlroy is a political reporter for the Financial Review in the federal press gallery at Parliament House.

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