Case study - APS employee engagement on social media
- Alex’s friend, X, posts a meme on Facebook that shows a political leader in clown makeup, with the caption: “Elect a clown, expect a circus.”
- Alex clicks ‘like’ on the post.
- Alex shares the meme on their own page.
- Another friend of Alex’s, Q, comments on Alex’s post: “Clowns are meant to be funny. This [expletive] deserves the guillotine”.
- Alex does not engage with this comment.
- What is Alex’s APS classification?
- Is Alex in a leadership role?
- Are they a prominent subject matter expert in the APS?
Lower risk: Alex is an APS5 employee in a large agency, with no supervisory responsibilities. While they have technical expertise in their field, they are not known as a subject matter expert in their agency or the APS.
Moderate risk: Alex is an EL1 employee in a small central agency, who supervises an APS6 employee and a graduate. Part of Alex’s role is to deliver presentations about their subject area to APS employees across agencies, and, occasionally, at professional conferences.
Higher risk: Alex is an SES Band 2 employee in a central department, or the Head of Mission at an Australian Embassy or High Commission or the Head of Post at an Australian Consulate-General.
- Who is the political leader in the meme?
- Which agency does Alex work in?
- How close is the subject matter of the post to Alex’s area of work?
Lower risk: Alex is a Finance Officer in a service delivery agency. The meme depicts the leader of a foreign country. Alex has no dealings with that country or its citizens in their work.
Moderate risk: The leader depicted in the meme is the Australian Prime Minister, and Alex is a policy adviser in a department that interacts with senior ministers.
Higher risk: The leader depicted in the meme is the Australian Prime Minister, and Alex is an SES Band 1 employee in a central department that interacts with the Prime Minister’s Office. Alternatively, the subject of the meme is the leader of a foreign country in which Alex is posted.
- How extreme is the tone of the post?
- Would a reasonable member of the community view it as falling within the norms of acceptable social behaviour?
- What is the nature of Alex’s involvement in this scenario?
The meme appears to call into question the competence of the political leader and their government. The clown and circus metaphors suggest they cannot be taken seriously or relied upon to meet the community’s needs or expectations.
While the tone of the meme is clearly critical, it falls within the range of socially acceptable discourse—for example, it does not use obscene language or slurs, depict or incite acts of violence, or make threats. At the same time, the apparent intention of the meme is to insult or mock the politician, which means it poses a higher risk in itself than expressing polite disagreement with a government policy.
The comment made by Alex’s friend Q falls considerably further outside social norms than the meme, and could in itself risk damage to public confidence if posted by an APS employee.
By liking the meme on their friend X’s page, Alex could reasonably be viewed to endorse the sentiment, and this may raise similar risks as reposting it. Arguably, reposting it may be considered a stronger endorsement of its message, and could give rise to a higher risk, than liking the meme.
The presence of Q’s comment does not necessarily call into question Alex’s ability to be professional or impartial, to the extent that Alex does not engage with the comment. That said, it would be advisable for Alex to delete the comment or otherwise indicate that they do not endorse it, to reduce the risk of any perception that Alex supports the sentiment expressed in Q’s comment.
On the basis of the above considerations:
- How high is the risk of this engagement undermining public confidence in the APS?
- What should Alex’s agency do?
If Alex is an APS5 Finance Officer in a service delivery agency, and the meme depicts the Australian Prime Minister, the post might raise questions about Alex’s judgement, but is unlikely to raise serious concerns about their capacity to behave impartially and professionally in their work. It is important that APS employees in all roles exercise good judgement—but the more junior the employee, the more likely it is that their judgement in their work will be tempered or influenced by that of more senior colleagues and managers, and the less likely it is to adversely affect the ability of their agency or the APS to serve an elected government.
The tone of the meme is not so extreme as to cause a reasonable member of the community to conclude that Alex is incapable of behaving impartially and professionally, and this, combined with their role in an enabling area of their agency and their relatively junior status, suggests that there is overall a low risk to public confidence.
In this case, it may be reasonable for Alex’s manager to take no formal action, but to have a conversation with Alex about how personal behaviour on social media may reflect on the way employees and the APS are perceived—and to consider ways to help Alex hone their judgement as part of their professional development.
That said, if Alex has a history of posting or engaging with similar content, the cumulative effect may pose a greater risk to public trust. In this case, Alex’s manager should check Alex’s understanding of the impact their personal behaviour can have on confidence in the agency and the APS, discuss the risks of their online activity to date, emphasise the importance of exercising sound judgement as an APS employee, and encourage them to discuss and assess the risks of future posts of a similar nature.
While the post in itself does not necessarily indicate a position so extreme as to be incompatible with APS employees’ requirement to behave impartially, there are some factors that might increase the risk. For example, if the meme depicted the Australian Prime Minister and Alex was an EL2 policy adviser in a central department that directly supports the Prime Minister, it may be reasonable to question their professionalism—in particular, their capacity to understand and meet the obligations of APS employment—and their ability to serve the elected government in a professional and apolitical way.
In these circumstances, Alex’s engagement would pose at least a moderate risk of undermining public confidence in the APS. It would be reasonable for Alex’s manager to discuss the matter with Alex in the first instance and check their understanding of their obligations as a senior APS employee. Having regard to all the circumstances, Alex’s manager should assess the extent to which the post is likely to undermine public confidence, and take proportionate action, which may include considering the matter as a potential breach of the Code of Conduct. If Alex is found to have breached the Code of Conduct, Alex’s agency should consider the range of sanctions available to ensure that any sanction is proportionate to the breach. Any response by the agency must be reasonable having regard to the particular circumstances.