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The murky waters of government employment and political neutrality

The Government of Canada has a generally well-written Values and Ethics Code, which public servants must abide by. With every passing year, a particular element of this Code has become increasingly challenging to explain with absolute clarity and even more challenging to enforce, save for the most obvious cases.  I’m referring specifically to:

  • Section 1 – Respect for democracy – Expected Behaviour 1.1 – Respecting the rule of law and carrying out their duties in accordance with legislation, policies and directives in a non-partisan and impartial manner.
  • Section 3 – Integrity – Expected Behaviour 3.1Acting at all times with integrity and in a manner that will bear the closest public scrutiny, an obligation that may not be fully satisfied by simply acting within the law.

The issue as I see it

  • Many public servants (not all of course) are well-informed about government and politics in general
  • A sub-set of these public servants are passionate about their political beliefs and/or passionate about politically sensitive topics.
  • A further sub-set have no issues engaging on social media and building their online personal brands / digital footprints surrounding these topics. This of course violates both of the sections from the Code that I highlighted above (non-partisanship and impartiality goes out the window as does acting in a manner that bears the closest public scrutiny)
  • Even if this last group stops engaging in these topics online, it has already built up a permanent digital history that someone (media, political party, troll, NGO, etc.) can rather quickly find using freely available social media monitoring tools.

Key questions

  • In an era where building a strong digital presence is crucial for advancing a political movement/policy/belief, is it really fair to tell public servants that they must stop, especially if they have a Charter-protected right to political expression as a civil servant?
  • If their entire online history can’t be removed anyway, what’s the point of telling them to stop now?  The perception of their partisanship is already there.

Legal perspective

Amanda Clarke and Ben Piper published an excellent paper last year that looked at this issue from a legal perspective and provided some general guidance based on their reading of relevant case-law: A Legal Framework to Govern Online Political Expression by Public ServantsSome highlights from this research:

  • The more senior you are in your position as a public servant the less scope you have to engage in political discourse
  • The more closely your political discourse is related to your work as a public servant, the less scope you have to engage
  • The more substantive the impact of the act, the less permissible it is
  • The more visible the act, the less permissible it is
  • The more easily you can be identified online as a public servant, the less permissible it is.

My own take

While it can be argued that some of the above guidance makes logical sense, you can see how this becomes a fully subjective exercise when it comes down to enforcement. Further, I think the last two guidance items (visibility and identification) should be removed as they can give public servants a false sense of security. It’s best to always work under the assumption that anything you do online, especially on social media, can be found by those seeking it. Also, attempting to hide that you are a public servant while remaining politically active on social media only encourages others to seek this information out. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule (intelligence/policing/military agencies, etc.) but they have stand-alone protocols and guidance.

The bottom line

The advice I provide to public servants (when asked) is that it all comes down to personal risk tolerance. Even if you use your best judgment in applying the case-law guidance, you should still at all times be prepared to become a headline news story, which may put your personal/professional reputation at risk, as well as the reputation of your employer. Some people are comfortable with that. What I worry about are the public servants that do follow general guidance but never anticipate that something seemingly innocent might quickly blow out of proportion and are surprised when it does. Trolls act rapidly and tend to be quite digitally savvy.  When delivering seminars on this topic I like to point out examples of people who followed all the rules in their organizations but still ended up having their reputations permanently associated with a particular incident that occurred online. Whether they were in the right or wrong does not matter to the internet’s digital footprint zeitgeist.

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