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Social media is now a fundamental part of how we connect and engage with one another. It has become central to the way we share news, ideas, and interests; how we maintain relationships; and how we express our identities and roles in our communities.
Australian Public Service (APS) employees have a right to participate in online society, just as they have rights as citizens of Australia to engage in community life. APS employees are entitled to private lives, personal views, and political opinions.
At the same time, the unique nature of APS employment means expressing our views can reflect not only on us as individuals, but on our agencies and the APS as a whole. Our personal behaviour can ultimately affect the confidence of the Australian community and the Government in the integrity of the APS as an institution.
This is why some of our obligations as public servants extend into our private lives, and must be balanced with our rights as citizens.
On social media, confidence in the APS can be particularly vulnerable to employees’ personal behaviour. This guidance aims to help APS employees, managers, and agencies understand and assess the risks that employees’ online behaviour can pose to public confidence in agencies and the APS, and strike a reasonable balance between employees’ rights as individuals and their obligations as public servants.
What do we mean by social media?
When we talk about ‘social media’ in this guidance, we mean a wide and evolving range of online interactions and behaviours on many different platforms.
Platforms include social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, or Reddit; professional networking sites like LinkedIn; video sharing sites and apps like YouTube and TikTok; blogs; online forums and communities; comments sections on news articles; and, in some cases, more seemingly private tools like email.
Behaviours include posting content, uploading pictures (including themed ‘frames’ or captions for these on some sites); participating in online petitions and fundraisers; commenting on posts, blogs, Instagram photos or YouTube videos; sharing memes; ‘liking’ other people’s content; and sending direct or private messages on networking platforms.
In this guidance, when we refer to ‘posts’, ‘comments’, or ‘posting’ on social media, we are using this as a shorthand way to cover the full range of online activity.
Why the focus on social media?
Some of our obligations as APS employees apply at all times—including in our online lives.
The principles of balancing personal rights and employment obligations apply to a range of private behaviours for APS employees—like handing out how-to-vote cards, attending rallies, or volunteering for community organisations. In all these activities, our personal behaviour can affect public trust in our agencies and the APS.
But on social media in particular, our private actions can have far wider-reaching effects than we intend—or, often, can control. Our online footprint is effectively permanent, and what we post can find its way to people we never imagined would see it.
We cannot always predict what will go viral, nor how our posts might be taken out of context. This means we need to be particularly careful about our engagement online, where our behaviour is more visible, more enduring, and much more likely to affect public trust in the public service—as well as our own professional reputation and credibility.
Why the focus on trust and confidence in the APS?
In an effective Australian democracy, members of the community can trust that the government they elected will meet its commitments through an impartial and professional public service.
This means the community needs to have confidence that APS employees—the people providing advice to the Government, administering policies and programs, delivering services to the Australian people, and spending public money—are serving the public interest. Similarly, the Government and the Parliament are entitled to expect the APS to serve the government of the day impartially.
Failure to meet these expectations can undermine public confidence in the integrity of public administration, and in the effectiveness of our system of government as a whole. An apolitical and professional public service is a core feature of our system of representative and responsible government.
In choosing to work in the APS, we agree to take on our share of the responsibility for maintaining public confidence in public administration—and we accept that doing so will sometimes impose limits on our personal behaviour.
Confidence in the APS is affected by the things we do, but also by how we are perceived. It can be undermined when our actions seem inconsistent with the public interest, or raise doubts about our political neutrality or our ability to make fair decisions.
Our personal behaviour can undermine public trust if it would cause a reasonable person to conclude that we—as individuals, or as a service—are unable to serve the government of the day impartially and professionally in our work.
This means, for example, that if an employee posts something highly critical of a policy they advise on, it would be reasonable to question their ability to provide impartial advice when they are at work—and, in extreme cases, to wonder if they might deliberately undermine the Government’s policy objectives. And if all employees behaved this way online, it would be reasonable to infer that the APS as a whole could not be trusted to administer the policies of an elected government.
APS behavioural requirements
All APS employees are bound by the APS Values, Employment Principles, and Code of Conduct set out in the Public Service Act 1999 (PS Act). These obligations set high standards of behaviour for individual public servants, with the ultimate purpose of maintaining public confidence in the integrity of public administration. When action is taken to address suspected misconduct, or to sanction proven misconduct, its purpose is to maintain, or, where necessary, restore that confidence.
One of our obligations under the Code of Conduct is to behave at all times in a way that upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles, and the integrity and good reputation of our agency and the APS.
This means that APS employees’ behaviour outside work is subject to the Code of Conduct to the extent that:
- it could reasonably be viewed as failing to uphold the integrity and good reputation of the employee’s agency or the APS, or
- it could reasonably call into question the employee’s capacity to comply with the Values and Employment Principles in their work—for example, their capacity to be impartial or respectful.
APS employees’ personal behaviour on social media can breach the Code of Conduct. The higher the risk that a post could undermine trust in the APS, the more likely it is to be inconsistent with the Code.
Understanding and assessing the risks
The risk of damage to public confidence will always depend on the circumstances of each case—an employee expressing a personal or political view online will not necessarily undermine trust in the APS. There are three key factors that can increase or mitigate the risk: the employee’s seniority, the relationship between the topic of the post and the employee’s work, and how extreme the expression of their view is.
To assess the risk of a particular online behaviour undermining trust in the APS, employees and agencies should consider all three factors and form a view as to what a reasonable member of the community would conclude, on the basis of the behaviour, about:
- the employee’s ability to behave impartially, professionally, and with integrity in their work, and
- whether the individual agency or the APS as an institution can be trusted to implement the policies of an elected government.
Agencies’ responses to employees’ online behaviour should always be proportionate to the risk that the behaviour poses to public trust in the APS. Responses must be reasonable in the circumstances, taking into account the nature and gravity of the employee’s behaviour.
Anonymity, aliases, and disclaimers
While the risk is greater if you identify yourself as an employee of the APS or your agency, it is not eliminated if you don’t.
Employees can be identified online in a range of ways, even if they post anonymously or using an alias—and once you are identified as an APS employee, your behaviour can affect public confidence regardless of your intention to keep your posts and your employment separate.
If you are posting anonymously, you should assume that at some point your identity and the nature of your employment may be revealed.
In some cases, it may be useful to include a disclaimer on your profile or on an individual post to indicate that your views are your own and do not represent your agency, the APS, or the Government. This may be appropriate, for example, on professional networking sites such as LinkedIn. However, a disclaimer isn’t enough to eliminate all the risks—public confidence can still be damaged by an employee’s behaviour even if the employee has stated that they’re acting in a private capacity.
Generally, the more senior an employee, the greater the risk of their online behaviour affecting public confidence in the APS. This is because:
- the community is more likely to believe senior employees’ comments are based on specialised inside knowledge
- the opinions of senior leaders and authority figures are given more weight than those of more junior employees
- senior employees have a significant degree of responsibility and may be required to lead the implementation of government policies and programs
- the more senior an employee, the more difficult it can be to differentiate comments they make in a private capacity from those made on behalf of their agency or Minister.
As a leader, you set the tone for the rest of your organisation, and should be relied upon to act as an exemplar to your staff, your organisation, and your broader networks.
Connection between the topic and your work
Posting about our own agency or workplace, the Government or Opposition, political matters, or policy issues may be viewed as inherently riskier for APS employees than, for example, posting about our holidays, the football, or our pets.
On social media, our comments on some topics might be given greater weight—and cause greater concern—than similar comments made by members of the public, because APS employees may be perceived to have privileged access to knowledge and influence within government. This becomes more likely the closer the topic is to our area of work.
This does not mean employees must never engage online on political or social issues—or that engaging on other issues is always risk-free. Broadly speaking, APS employees have the right to post, and participate in online debate, on a range of issues—including topics of political or social interest, government policy, and the merits of various parties’ policies in the lead-up to an election (subject to agency-specific requirements).
But when considering whether to comment on these issues, we should remember that the closer the topic is to our work, our agency, or our Minister, the greater the risk it can pose to public confidence in our agency or the APS.
The risk to public confidence is greater the more extreme our behaviour and expression, including the tone and language of our posts. For example, an employee’s extreme criticism or praise of a political party or a policy may lead a reasonable member of the community to believe the employee is so entrenched in their position that they can’t put aside their personal views to behave professionally and impartially at work.
Our behaviour on social media can also affect public confidence even when the topic is less clearly related—or entirely unrelated—to our work. For example, an employee’s derogatory comments about a particular culture may raise questions about their capacity to serve the diverse Australian community. Equally, an employee threatening violence or being abusive in an online argument on even a non-political topic may call into question their professionalism and integrity, and can damage the reputation of their agency or the APS.
This does not mean that APS employees must always be positive, polite, or even neutral online—the range of acceptable expression is broad. The question is whether a reasonable member of the community would conclude on the basis of the post that the employee can’t be trusted to work impartially, professionally, or with integrity in the APS.
Liking, following, friending, and tagging
‘Liking’ someone else’s post carries similar risks to posting the material yourself. This is because you can reasonably be perceived to endorse the content—even if this is not your intention. For example, if you ‘like’ your friend’s highly politicised post about small business regulation to show your support for their café, a reasonable member of the community is likely to think you endorse the political statement.
Following someone on social media, or adding them as a ‘friend’ or connection, is a low-risk activity in itself. It is reasonable, for example, to follow Members of Parliament across the political spectrum in the interests of staying well-informed or because you support their particular party, or to be Facebook friends with someone you know personally and who expresses strong political opinions online. Risks will only arise to the extent that you engage with the content they post.
Being tagged in a post may carry some risk. While you may be less likely to be seen to endorse a post you’re tagged in than one you ‘like’, if you’ve been tagged in a post that may pose a risk to public confidence through your association with it, it’s prudent to untag yourself as soon as it comes to your attention. You may also ask the person who tagged you not to do so in any subsequent posts of a similar nature.
While the level of risk of any particular online behaviour will depend on all the circumstances, some behaviours are more likely in themselves to undermine public trust, while others can only be assessed in context.
Higher risk behaviours include:
- Posting unlawful material (including content inconsistent with the confidentiality provisions in regulation 2.1 of the Public Service Regulations 1999, or with the Privacy Act 1988).
- Posting, reposting or ‘liking’ content that falls far outside the norms of acceptable social behaviour—e.g. hate speech; threats or encouragement of violence or harassment; personal attacks or derogatory comments about individuals or groups within the community; etc.
- Creating or sharing a petition in protest of your agency, policy area, or Minister.
- Establishing an online community that is critical of your agency or policy area, or which encourages or endorses harassment or defamation of individuals including Ministers, colleagues, members of particular communities, public figures; etc.
- Airing significant workplace grievances on social media.
Other behaviours may pose a higher or lower risk, having regard to all the circumstances. These may include:
- Criticising or praising your agency; the Government, Opposition, or other parties; or a Minister or Member of Parliament. This will need to be considered in the context of the risk factors, noting that extreme pro-Government posts raise the same concerns as those that are extremely anti-Government: both can call into question your capacity to be impartial, and damage public confidence.
- Signing a petition that is critical of a government policy, an agency, or the Government. This may have a different risk profile than starting or sharing a petition, and will need to be assessed having regard to all the risk factors.
- Joining an online community. Merely being a member of an online community is generally a lower-risk activity, though your activity within that community can increase the risk. In some extreme cases, though, an APS employee’s mere association with a community can undermine confidence in an agency or the APS—for example, if the community’s purpose is to share unlawful material, or advocate violence.
- Starting or sharing an online fundraiser. This will depend on the purpose of the fundraiser and the way that it is characterised. For example, starting or sharing a fundraiser for bushfire relief is a lower risk activity if it sells merchandise decorated with koalas, as opposed to merchandise featuring slogans that criticise a Minister personally.
- Social debate. Generally speaking, employees are free to engage in online debate on a wide range of issues—from the relatively uncontroversial, such as the care and feeding of sourdough starters or the rights of cyclists to ride on roads, to the more contentious, such as the merits of greyhound racing or live animal export, the legalisation of cannabis, or the date of Australia Day. But the risk is higher the more extreme the expression: an APS employee using slurs or abusive language, engaging in harassment, or threatening violence has a high risk of undermining confidence in the APS, regardless of context.
- Comments about other jurisdictions’ governments or leaders. This will depend on a range of factors, including your involvement with that jurisdiction in your work, but also the nature and expression of your comments.
- For example, a post that refers negatively to a State government aligned with the federal Opposition, and praises the Commonwealth Government as a favourable contrast, may raise questions about your ability to serve the government of the day impartially—noting that today’s Opposition may be tomorrow’s Government.
- Risks can also arise in commenting on political matters in other countries, though this will always need to be considered in the context of the risk factors.
- In particular, APS employees serving overseas should remember that the public may not always be able to distinguish between their private social media and their official presence, and should ensure their personal online behaviour would not reasonably be viewed as an endorsement or criticism of local governments or leaders, or as representing Australian Government policies or positions.
Some behaviours might appear to pose an inherently lower risk because they do not take place in a public forum—e.g. private emails, group chats, or direct or private messages on networking sites. While on their face comments made through these channels present a low risk to public confidence, private correspondence does not always stay private. Employees need to exercise judgement in their private correspondence, and consider the likelihood and consequences of it being shared more broadly than they anticipated.
Just as employees should assess the risks before posting, agencies should ensure that their response to employees’ online behaviour is proportionate to the risk it poses. Any response must be reasonable, having regard to the nature and gravity of the behaviour.
What about my online past?
Your behaviour on social media before you joined the APS can still affect public trust and confidence.
Generally speaking, the longer ago the posts were made, the lower the risk—but your historical online behaviour should be considered in the context of the risk factors as they relate to your current role.
It is prudent 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, and removed where appropriate.
When in doubt, discuss
In some cases, assessing the risks may not be easy or straightforward, and employees and their managers are encouraged to work through these scenarios together.
Agencies should ensure that managers are equipped to help employees assess the risks in a considered and proportionate way—and that employees understand the importance of discussing situations in which they are unsure, and feel safe to do so.
If you have further questions about this guidance, please contact the Ethics Advisory Service on (02) 6202 3737, or email ethics [at] apsc.gov.au.