The purpose of these guidelines is to set out the ethical issues that need to be taken into consideration when public servants, including agency heads, become involved, in their official capacity, in helping to explain and implement Government policies and programmes.
The guidelines also implement the Government’s policy commitment not to use public servants in government advertising unless that role is essential in the communication of an important message on an issue such as public health or similar.
While it is the responsibility of individual agencies to develop strategies that most effectively explain and implement the policies and programmes of the Government of the day, any perception of politicisation or bias in these strategies can affect the reputation of the APS as a whole. These guidelines provide a framework for a consistent approach to managing public information and awareness initiatives.
The broad legislative and policy basis
Australian public servants have a legitimate role in helping to explain to the Australian community how Government policy decisions and initiatives will be implemented, how they will operate and how they will affect rights, entitlements and responsibilities.
The nature of and limits to this role are defined by two interrelated sets of principles:
- the particular relationship with, and division of responsibilities between, Ministers and public servants under our system of government, and
- the APS Values set out on the Public Service Act 1999.
There are several guides that set out the different responsibilities of Ministers and public servants and how they should work together.
The Government’s Standards of Ministerial Ethics, which replaces Chapter 5 of the Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility (last issued in 1998), emphasises that Ministers must accept accountability for the exercise of their powers and the functions of their office.
Chapter 6 of the Guide also deals with Ministers and their relationships with public servants:
It is important that there be trust between Ministers and public servants, and each must contribute to the establishment and maintenance of the trust. Ministers should be scrupulous in avoiding asking public servants to do anything that the APS principles do not permit, and in particular should not ask them to engage in activities which could call into question their political impartiality. 1
If such a request were ever made of a public servant by a Minister or his/her staff, the public servant must refuse. This is a legal obligation deriving from sections 10 and 13 of the Public Service Act 1999, which set out the APS Values and the APS Code of Conduct respectively.
The Australian Public Service Commission’s 2006 publication Supporting Ministers, Upholding the Values2 details the principles underpinning the relationship between Ministers and public servants. As this publication makes clear, it is the responsibility of:
- the Government and its Ministers to make a policy decision and to explain why that decision has been made
- public servants to help implement that policy and explain to stakeholders what the policy involves and how it will operate.
Three key APS Values, set out in section 10 of the Public Service Act, underpin this relationship:
- s. 10(a): the Australian Public Service is apolitical, performing its functions in an impartial and professional manner
- s. 10 (e): the Australian Public Service is responsive to the Government in providing frank, honest, comprehensive, accurate and timely advice and in implementing the Government's policies and programmes
- s. 10(f): the Australian Public Service delivers services fairly, effectively, impartially and courteously to the Australian public and is sensitive to the diversity of the Australian public.
The APS Values mean that public servants should not become involved in any official capacity with promoting or commenting on a Government policy. Similarly, public servants should not in any official capacity criticise or comment on the policies of the Opposition or other political organisations.3 Agency resources are not to be used to support political campaigns.
But these Values also mean that public servants have a duty to effectively, professionally and proactively explain and implement Government policies and programmes and to ensure that the community fully understands how these policies and programmes will operate and what their rights, entitlements and obligations might be.
What does this mean in practice?
The issue of what might or what might not appear to be political may vary in different circumstances and agencies and individual public servants will need to be aware of and manage certain risks.
Public information activities that might involve public servants fall into two basic categories:
- explaining Government policies and programmes, and
- public information promotion.
These guidelines make a basic distinction between these two types of public information activity. Provided that it is managed properly, helping to explain Government policies and programmes is a core responsibility of public servants. However, proposals for active involvement by public servants in publicity campaigns for Government initiatives can raise perceptions of bias and need to be considered very carefully.
1. Explaining Government policies and programmes
The first of the public information activities is a more traditional public service role, involving helping to explain to the public and other stakeholders how new or ongoing Government policies and programmes are meant to work. Examples of this include:
- engaging directly with the public by working in call centres or ‘on the counter’ at Government shopfronts
- speaking at public forums and engaging in public discussions
- developing and appearing in written information material targeting the public such as Government leaflets, booklets and newsletters
- responding to ministerial correspondence
- participating in documentaries on aspects of APS work
- contributing articles to non-government newspapers, magazines and journals
- responding to media queries and participating in media interviews and discussions, including on radio and television
- helping explain Government policies and programmes to audiences internationally and to other Australian jurisdictions.
Agencies should have guidelines in place that cover public servants’ legitimate responsibilities to explain Government policies and programmes. Both managers and staff have a responsibility to be aware of their agency’s guidelines. Public servants need to make sure that they understand the agency’s procedures and managers must be able to help their staff work through issues that arise, bearing in mind that it will be necessary to exercise judgement in individual cases.
The nature and detail of guidelines put in place by agencies will depend on their own particular concerns and responsibilities, but they should cover:
- the agency’s particular interests in contributing to public information and awareness of the Government’s policies and programmes and any particular legal or ethical concerns that these interests involve
- procedures for consulting senior managers about any proposed employee involvement in media and other public forums in their official capacity, including procedures for seeking approval where necessary
- the role of managers in helping staff understand the professional, ethical and legal aspects of this issue.
Agency guidelines may need to take into account new sources of electronic information and opinion. Some agencies may have an interest in using on-line sources such as ‘YouTube’, ‘MySpace’, chat rooms and blogs to explain and communicate Government policies and programmes to particular client groups, and agency guidelines would need to address the particular sensitivities of using these channels, including the need to balance speed of response with accuracy and impartiality and the need to avoid political comment in any on-line dialogue. Likewise, agencies involved in historical or scientific research may have a legitimate interest in contributing to or correcting information in on-line sources such as Wikipedia, while other agencies may see access to Wikipedia editing as a particular risk.
Agency guidelines should also cover areas that are likely to involve particular sensitivities. These areas are discussed below.
Information versus advocacy
Effective explanation of Government policies and programmes may involve both straight information and as well as comment designed to explain and highlight elements of this information. A key issue is the extent to which comment might be perceived as advocacy, and this will require judgement in individual cases. Again, the rule of thumb is that it is the Government’s responsibility to explain why a policy or programme decision has been taken and the public servant’s responsibility to explain what the decision means and how it will operate.
In practice, of course, this distinction may not be so clear cut, since an explanation of why a policy decision has been made may be integral to effectively explaining what it means and how it will operate. In such a case it is legitimate to refer to statements made by the Government [for example, “The Government has stated…”] but any other comment on the quality of or motives behind the decisions would clearly be partisan.
Proposed Government policies and programmes
It may be necessary for public servants, including agency heads, to provide information to draw attention to a proposed Government policy or piece of legislation in order to canvass opinion or to prepare the community and stakeholders for change. While this activity is consistent with the roles and responsibilities of public servants, it is more likely to be politically sensitive than one involving policy or legislation that has already been announced or promulgated. Explanatory comment may be more likely to be perceived and accepted as neutral once the political decisions have been made, although once again judgements may depend on how politically controversial the issue has been.
Dealing with misinformation
An important element in implementing and explaining Government policies and programmes may be the need to counter community and stakeholder misconceptions. Care may need to be taken to ensure that attempts to correct these errors are not perceived as criticisms of the Opposition or of other stakeholders. In these circumstances, a statement of the facts in neutral language is less likely to be perceived as ‘political’ than a direct refutation of Opposition or other political stakeholder claims.
Responding to media enquiries
The risk to public servants who are approached directly by the media for comment on a particular issue is that they could be subject to aggressive or inappropriate questioning designed to elicit a response that is critical of Government or other political stakeholders. Agencies should have systems in place to address this.
The guidance and the good practice examples set out in Supporting Ministers on media issues provide a useful basis for handling media enquiries more generally. A useful strategy can involve:
- listing a single point of contact—a media spokesperson—for all media enquiries on agency documents and web sites
- requiring all approaches to staff by the media to be referred immediately to the media spokesperson
- having the media spokesperson responsible for deciding how the enquiry will be responded to, including whether:
- the matter should be referred to the Minister’s Office because of its political nature
- the media point of contact should respond on behalf of the agency (including “no comment”)
- because of the importance of the inquiry or its technical nature, it should be handled by another public servant.
Agencies should develop protocols for handling media enquiries which are understood by all staff.
2. Public information promotion
The second type of public information activity involves more proactive campaigns to publicise particular Government policy and programme initiatives. These campaigns normally involve television and radio advertising. Public servants, including agency heads, may decide to or be asked to participate in these campaigns because of perceptions that their expertise and authority can lend credibility.
Public information promotions are advertising campaigns designed to publicise and promote, as opposed simply to explain, a Government policy or programme. They can involve television, radio or print media as well as internet-based campaigns.
Public servant involvement in these types of campaigns involves a significant risk of perceptions of political bias. In particular:
- the distinction between information and advocacy is likely to become blurred significantly in a campaign to “sell” a particular Government policy or to correct public perceptions of that policy
- the nature and format of electronic advertising, tending to focus on sound bites and image rather than detailed interpretation, also risks perceptions that the public servant is selling the policy or programme rather than objectively explaining it.
The Government’s policy is not to use public servants in government advertising unless that role is essential in the communication of an important message in cases where there is a demonstrated public interest or public safety issue and where the involvement of the public servant can lend expertise and credibility, for example, a Chief Medical Officer warning of a pandemic or a security expert assessing a terrorist threat.
Agency heads who wish to use public servants on government advertising on public interest or public safety grounds must first seek the agreement of the Public Service Commissioner.
Public servants have a responsibility to help explain the implementation and operation of the policies and programmes of the Government of the day. Co‑operation with and use of the media and other public forums can be very effective in helping to meet this responsibility. Agencies should put processes and structures in place to ensure that the risk of perception of political bias can be identified and managed.
On the other hand, public servants, including agency heads, should avoid involvement in Government policy publicity campaigns unless there is a demonstrated public interest.
The Australian Public Service Commission can provide advice and assistance on the ethical and legislative framework covering the roles and responsibilities of public servants in public information and awareness initiatives. More complex or difficult cases should be considered by the agency head, who may wish to consult with the Public Service Commissioner. As indicated above, however, any proposal to use a public servant in a Government television, radio, print media or internet-based campaign must be agreed by the Public Service Commissioner.
1 Prime Minister, A Guide on Key Elements of Ministerial Responsibility, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra 1998, p 13.
3 Guidance on APS employees making political comment in a private capacity is set out on pp 34-5 of APS Values and Code of Conduct in Practice. A guide to Official Conduct for Employees and Agency Heads