Public officials and social media

first_imgOver the last two weeks, a rather unfortunate exchange over social media – Facebook – was initiated by the Guyana “Director of Public Information” (DPI), who tagged the High Commissioner of India, ie directly informed the latter of his views, on an aspect of India’s foreign policy initiative. The High Commissioner responded to the post to refute the claims articulated, but the DPI continued with further elaborations even after the Indian High Commissioner disengaged from the exchange.One senior Government Minister made a post after the DPI’s initial salvo, describing his intervention as inappropriate and asked him to remove it. The DPI ignored the request and continued posting. There were soon public demands that the Government make an official clarification of the DPI’s claims, but the Minister of State in the Ministry of the Presidency merely announced that the claims were not those of his government but the DPI’s “private” opinion. The Chairman of the AFC, the party of the Government coalition from which the DPI was appointed, agreed with this position. The DPI’s substantive superior, Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo, the holder of the Government’s information portfolio, did not offer any comments.In light of the foregoing ambiguities, it is our considered opinion that the Government should offer guidelines on public officials’ comments on social media. It must clarify the pre-social media standard that insisted although public officials are entitled to freedom of opinion, their freedom of expression is not unconditional and they have a “duty of discretion” which requires them to “moderate the public expression of their views”.We suggest that they could do worse than start from the US Office of Government Ethics legal advisory of April 9, 2015 on the subject in reference to time of posting and use of government title:“When employees are on-duty, the Standards of Conduct require that they use official time in an honest effort to perform official duties. As a general matter, this requirement limits the extent to which employees may access and use their personal social media accounts while on duty.“A question that frequently arises is the extent to which employees may reference their official titles on their personal social media accounts. In general, the Standards of Conduct prohibit employees from using their official titles, positions, or any authority associated with their public offices for private gain. (It) also requires that employees avoid using their titles or positions in any manner that would create an appearance that the Government sanctions or endorses their activities or those of another.“Employees’ use of personal social media ordinarily will not create the impermissible appearance of governmental sanction or endorsement which would be prohibited… An employee does not, for example, create the appearance of government sanction merely by identifying his or her official title or position in an area of the personal social media account designated for biographical information.“In evaluating whether a reference to an employee’s official title or position on social media violates the Standards of Conduct, the agency ethics official must consider the totality of the circumstances to determine whether a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would conclude that the government sanctions or endorses the communication. Relevant factors for agency ethics officials to consider in making the determination include:Whether the employee refers to his or her government employment, title, or position in areas other than those designated for biographical information; whether the employee holds a highly visible position in the Government, such as a senior or political position, or is authorised to speak for the Government as part of the employee’s official duties or whether other circumstances would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the government sanctions or endorses the employee’s social media activities.”In our estimation, in the incident cited it is incontrovertible that the DPI Facebook claims would lead, and in fact, did lead a “reasonable person to conclude that the government sanctions or endorses the employee’s social media activities”. He should be sanctioned.last_img read more