Prime Minister Tony Abbott's department has taken the bizarre step of declaring that its advice on how staff should use Facebook and Twitter is a secret, even though it was reported across the country.
The department's leaked Social Media Policy attracted controversy because it urges public servants to dob on colleagues who use the internet to criticise politicians or policies, even if they do so anonymously.
The advice goes further than guidelines issued by the Public Service Commission and other departments, which do not explicitly tell staff to inform on each other.
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The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet's manual says if a staff member "becomes aware of another employee who is engaging in conduct that may breach this policy, there is an expectation that the employee will report the conduct to the department".
"This means that if you receive or become aware of a social media communication by another PM&C employee that is not consistent with this policy, you should advise that person accordingly and inform your supervisor."
However, while many public service workplaces publish their social media guidelines, PM&C said its policy was strictly an internal document and it would not discuss it.
The manual warns against making comments, whether at work or in a private capacity, that could be perceived as biased or as harsh or extreme criticisms of "the government, government policies, a member of Parliament from another political party, or their respective policies".
A former chief adviser on the government's internet use, Nicholas Gruen, said public servants themselves were more responsible for the culture of censorship than were politicians.
Dr Gruen chaired the Government 2.0 Taskforce, which concluded in 2009 and recommended that public servants "be actively encouraged and empowered to engage online".
He said on Tuesday: "The blockers have not really been at the political level; the blockers have been public servants themselves and the culture of the public service."
And it wasn't necessarily older, senior staff whose views on public engagement were more conservative.
"Generally speaking, there is a pervasive fear of public comment that is fairly widespread at most levels throughout the public service."
Dr Gruen said a more open bureaucracy that encouraged staff to engage with the public "would deliver better government".
However, he acknowledged that managing perceptions of bias was "a complex issue and I don't envy the Public Service Commission in trying to sort through it".
PM&C's policy also cites the case of former Immigration Department worker Michaela Banerji, who was sacked last year after she used a pseudonymous Twitter account to criticise refugee detention policies.
She took the department to the Federal Court, but the parties settled out of court late last month.
Ms Banerji wrote to Attorney-General George Brandis on Tuesday, saying the bureaucracy's policies on using Facebook and Twitter were "a 'trip-wire’ for public servants in that, while on the one hand the guidelines state that public servants are encouraged to enter into robust discussion, they are in fact, not permitted to criticise government as private citizens".
She asked him to declare "that all public servants, as a class of persons, enjoy the constitutionally implied freedom of political communication in their capacity as private citizens, whatever their platform of expression".
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