As I See It

Blurred lines: social media and public servants

Many organisations now deem it necessary to have a social media policy for colleagues. Guidelines on using social media safely are, in the best examples, readily available to staff. Folks need to know the pitfalls of using social media in general and the company want to make sure reputations aren’t being dragged through the mud.

This is all fine and well. A lot of us now are very sensitive to the boundaries between what we share with friends and what we make visible to the wider world. The hilarious screen grabs you often see of folks slagging their boss only to realise they are Facebook friends are very rare in real life.

People are entitled to either state their occupation via their Facebook profile or keep it blank. Facebook allows its users to pretty much lock down all their content to whomever the user wants to see it; many people don’t take up this offer. So therefore, opinions can still be seen, pictures can still be viewed and allegiances are easy to ascertain. The general consensus between an employee and an employer is that as long as the employee doesn’t bring the organisation publicly into disrepute then all is cosy.

Focusin Mind by Miuenski Miuenski

I’ll assume the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ of social media privacy settings are now well known.

With this in mind, I ask: what about political views during the pre-election period on social media? Particularly among those in the public sector, whose opinions may be scrutinised by many or by hardly anyone at all.

The current referendum on independence for Scotland is the first time the vast majority of Scottish adults have given any sort of care about voting on politics. The turnout is expected to surpass 85% at the polls, which in any era is astounding. Apathy is not part of this referendum. So should a great many people be suppressed from sharing their views? No expertly written social media policy in the world is going to stop folks voicing their Yes’s or No’s via Facebook or Twitter.

Certainly, if you happen to be friends with me on Facebook, it won’t be hard to gauge where my sympathies lie even without a blatant expression of my view being published.

The recent accusations against the BBC have thrown into examination the requirement of public servants to show neutrality. The irony of the ire shown on social media from many within public offices, local authorities and NDPB’s etc., has been obvious. Many have called for an investigation into the BBC’s editorial content yet many of the calls come from those who are also paid by the tax payer.

Should people then be more mindful of their political views? Normally, it’s no big deal. People normally don’t care but this of course is an abnormal period in Scottish history. It seems ludicrous to try and ask public servants to not actively use social media to chat, debate and influence each other. Those three elements are the bedrock of a healthy democracy. The difference in the case of the BBC is that the alleged offence was committed by an organisation and not been the view of a single person.

If a group of public sector workers happened to set up a Facebook group (public or private) acalled “xx Council workers for Yes!” then there’s a problem. Their collective opinion denegrates the organisation and abuses the trust put in them by the tax payer.

However, social media can be used to challenge the establishment and if we start demanding that people should suppress their views against that establishment; then it all gets a bit Orwellian.
During this referendum period I have witnessed friends and colleagues publicly sharing research and facts about things they wouldn’t normally give two thoughts about. They have declared allegiances by adding badges to their profile pictures and been rather vocal about their views on the opposing side.

I struggle to come to a conclusion here.

The theory should be straightforward; you are paid from the public purse, therefore your opinions on public matters should not reflect favourably on either side of the debate. However, with the nature and publicity of social media, surely it is simply unavoidable and incomprehensible to expect that theory to play out so easily. As long as the views published do not bring your employer grief then what’s the problem? As long as the views don’t indicate that you cannot act professionally then what’s the problem? As long as the views expressed do not bring hurt on anyone else then what’s the problem?

Maybe the new theory should be; you are paid from the public purse, therefore your opinions should invigorate public debate, via all channels available, for the good and advancement of society.

Image credit: ‘Focusin Mind‘ by Miuenski Miuenski via Flickr.

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