Public service bosses have been told to take a proportionate approach when dealing with an employee's activity on social media if they determine it's breached APS obligations.
The Australian Public Service Commission, on Monday, released new guidelines for both APS employees and agencies when dealing with the vexing issue of public servants and social media.
Highly publicised matters, such as Michaela Banerji's battle against her termination for critical tweets which ended up in the High Court last year, have caused some concern public servants are having their free speech significantly impinged.
But the Public Service Commission have taken steps to address this by authoring the new guidelines which take an approach of educating employees to weigh up potential risks and balancing their obligations against free speech.
"APS employees have a right to personal and political expression on social media, but this right must be balanced with the obligations of their APS employment and the importance of maintaining public confidence in the service," a Public Service Commission spokeswoman said.
"This guidance provides a practical framework to help employees and agencies strike that balance in a reasonable, proportionate way."
Importantly, agencies and public service bosses are included in the guidelines this time around and they advocate for a proportionate approach to be taken when breaches occur.
"Agency policies on social media engagement, and responses to employee behaviour online, should ensure they strike a fair and reasonable balance between preserving the integrity of the APS and preserving employees' right to engage as citizens," the guidelines state.
They further advise an investigation is likely only warranted in high-risk cases and that in most cases either no agency intervention or further employee education is needed.
Former APS commissioner Andrew Podger, now an ANU academic, welcomed the guidelines saying they were fair and even handed.
Professor Podger said it was particularly pleasing to see agencies had been asked to impose sanctions proportionate to the breach.
"For most employees, most of the time, the risks are very low or nonexistent," he said.
"But for most senior offices, the risks can be high. Indeed, there is a case for firmer action to ensure the non-partisanship of our most senior public servants and their impartiality in serving the government and the public."
The eight-page guidelines refer to a wide range of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it covers increasingly popular video sharing sites such as TikTok and YouTube and extends to comment sections on posts and even private emails.
Some of the activities taken to constitute social media use covered by the guidelines includes uploading images, posting content, participating in petitions and fundraisers, sharing memes, sending direct messages and even clicking like on a post.
One regular criticism of the government's approach to policing public servants' social media use was that had they taken a positive stance on government policy they would not be punished. The updated guidelines take steps to address this.
The guidelines state that posting extreme pro-government statements can raise the same concerns as anti-government messages and that both can "call into question your capacity to be impartial, and damage public confidence".
Signing online petitions, especially if they are critical of the government or a policy, similarly poses risks to the public's confidence in the bureaucracy's impartiality.
Public servants have the right to engage in online debate in a wide range of issues, according to the guidelines, and this can extend to contentious issues such as the legalisation of cannabis or live animal exports.
However, expressing extreme views, proposing violence, using slurs or engaging in harassment all pose a significant risk of undermining the APS.
Public servants are also warned that posting anonymously does not guarantee safety from breaching the code of conduct as employees should expect their identity may become known, as seen in the Banerji case.
An employee's historical online activity, even prior to joining the public service, may also be considered to breach the individual's obligations.
While private messages and emails present a lower risk, the guidelines warn that private communication may not always stay private and employees must assess the likelihood of any messages being shared more widely.
Joining online communities and starting fundraisers are generally seen as benign online activities, however, the guidelines make clear that as with almost any circumstance, context matters.
Should the primary function of any of these groups or fundraisers be to overtly criticise the government or ministers or promote unlawful or anti-social behaviour, public servants could again find themselves in trouble.
The risks of a certain activity may not be clear and public servants are overwhelmingly encouraged to seek guidance from managers when in doubt.
A number of case studies will also be periodically published focusing on specific instances, particularly where the subject does not easily fit into the standard guidelines.