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Why is there a need for new guidance?

The nature of social media and its role in the community continues to change. The Commission therefore reviews its guidance regularly to ensure it remains current. A key update to this guidance is the inclusion of practical examples to assist APS officers to understand their rights and obligations.

What has changed since the last guidance?

The policy position of the guidance remains the same. As has always been the case, APS employees have a right to personal and political expression on social media, but this right is not unlimited, and needs to be balanced with the obligations of APS employment.

The new guidance provides a practical framework to help APS employees and agencies strike a reasonable balance in this regard. It is supported by case studies that illustrate the risk assessment and decision making framework in a practical way. The Commission will continue to publish case studies to ensure the guidance remains relevant and useful in an evolving social media landscape.

Can I put my employer in my profile?

In some agencies and roles, disclosing information about your employer or your role might risk compromising safety or security; in other agencies and roles, the risk is lower. Employees should read this guidance in context of their agency’s internal guidance and policies, which should provide advice about whether it is appropriate for employees to identify themselves online as an employee of the APS or their agency.

Even if you don’t name your employer online, you may nonetheless be identified as an employee of your agency or the APS. This should be considered in assessing the risks of your online behaviour.

Can I post good news stories about my work or agency?

APS employees are encouraged to be proud of their achievements, and those of their colleagues, their agency, and the broader APS. But before posting about these, confirm with your manager that the achievement is not confidential, and that promoting it in a public forum is appropriate—and consider any agency policies that might apply, including those about posting photos of the workplace or colleagues.

Consider also how you might respond to other users’ comments on your post, noting that you are not required to defend, or argue against, any particular stance. If engaging in discussion, address concerns factually, and be respectful and balanced. If in doubt, discuss your concerns with your manager, your agency Ethics Contact Officer, HR, or the Ethics Advisory Service.

I am active in academic debate in my discipline—including online. Is it OK for me to engage with this if it relates to government policy?

It’s great for the APS to have academic subject matter experts, but there are times when their academic and APS roles might come into conflict, and times when what they say can undermine trust in the APS. Consider the risk factors, conduct a risk assessment, and talk to your manager in the first instance. 

If I share a social media account with my partner, am I responsible for the things they post?

A joint account may reasonably be perceived to represent the views of both parties. At the very least, it can be assumed that both parties endorse the views expressed by the account. This means that social media activity on a joint account should be considered in the context of the risk factors, even if the posts are written by your partner and in fact represent only their own views.

In some cases it may be prudent to separate your online presence from your partner’s, and employees who have joint accounts may wish to review this arrangement when their role or classification changes.

What if I am tagged in an inappropriate post?

If you’ve been tagged in a post that may pose a risk to public confidence through your association with it, it’s a good idea to untag yourself as soon as it comes to your attention. You may also consider asking the person who tagged you not to do so in any subsequent posts of a similar nature.

What if I have historical posts that may be considered inappropriate in my current circumstances?

It is a good idea for employees to review their online footprint periodically, not only when they join the APS, but also when their roles change or they are promoted. Historical posts should be considered in the context of all the risk factors discussed in the guidance, and removed where appropriate. If in doubt, discuss with your manager, your agency Ethics Contact Officer, HR, or the Ethics Advisory Service.

Does the guidance impinge on APS employees’ freedom of speech?

In Comcare v Banerji [2019] HCA 23, the High Court confirmed that the requirement in the Code of Conduct for APS employees to behave at all times in a way that upholds the APS Values does not impinge on the implied freedom of political communication in the Constitution.

The Court held that while the Code of Conduct provisions in the Public Service Act 1999 restrict political communication, they do so for a legitimate purpose—namely, the maintenance and protection of an apolitical public service that is skilled and efficient in serving the national interest.

Provided they act reasonably, decision-makers are not required to separately consider any potential application of the implied freedom when making a decision for a breach of the Code.

Should every allegation of inappropriate behaviour on social media be referred for a Code of Conduct investigation?

An agency’s response should be proportionate to the risk of the employee’s action undermining public trust in the APS. Code of Conduct investigations have a rightful place in an agency’s toolkit in maintaining or restoring public confidence, but they are not always the best response.

Managers and HR professionals should consider the risks to public confidence in the specific circumstances, and take action that is in proportion to the risk. In many cases, it is appropriate to discuss concerns, and make attempts to remedy minor matters quickly and collaboratively, without formal proceedings.

Agencies may wish to have decisions about whether to take misconduct action for online behaviour made or reviewed at a senior level, to ensure appropriate consideration of the risks.

Does the social media guidance apply to contractors and consultants?

Contractors and consultants who work alongside APS employees are subject to the conduct requirements of their contracts. Through their association with the APS, their personal behaviour online can influence public confidence in the APS and the agencies they perform work for, though the risk profile will differ depending on their role and the services they provide.

Consultants and contractors should consider the risk factors in the guidance when using social media, and discuss the application of these with their supervisor or contract manager in the APS.

Further information:

Further guidance can be obtained by contacting the Ethics Advisory Service on 02 6202 3737, or email ethics [at] apsc.gov.au.

Last reviewed: 
14 September 2020