Defining Boundaries: The Challenge of the Connected Bureaucrat

The connected bureaucrat faces many challenges and pitfalls in a world where what you say on Twitter, Facebook or just about any social network becomes part of the public record. As more and more public servants begin to use social networking, it is important to begin defining boundaries and addressing the life of the bureaucrat who chooses to use social media.

In response to a tweet by @arodericks about personal branding, a discussion began around the dangers faced by public servants whose messages on social networks may be interpreted as the Government of Canada policy position on a particular issue. Our messages on social networks are publicly accessible and without our consent can be re-produced or published in any number of media publications without proper context. This risk, leaves us exposed to the whims of the world around us.

But I write “Opinions are my own” on my profile. I’m protected, right? Wrong. By identifying yourself as a public servant on your profile page, you are exposing yourself to a large amount of risk because everyone and anyone knows you are a public servant. As a public servant, you are supposed to be politically neutral which means you can’t take a policy stance or a political position on any issue. So forget about tweeting about the latest government scandal unless you want to have your own story appear on the news.

Every day that you spend on social media, you walk a very fine line. The exact definition of that line is not well established in Canada. The Treasury Board Guidelines on Web 2.0 leave much to interpretation and the guidance provided to public servants essentially is “Use your judgement and common sense. Don’t do anything unethical.” Leaves much to the imagination and a lot of wiggle room.

In contrast, the UK government has released a Social Media Guidance for Civil Servants document to provide guidance to its bureaucrats. It’s an extremely comprehensive document and one I encourage every bureaucrat to read. It addresses many of the issues and barriers to true adoption of social media including legacy software, firewall blocking and proper use of social media.

It’s a risky venture to build your own personal brand and become connected. You have to accept, understand and acknowledge the risk you are taking by actively participating in professional social networking . There will be wrist slapping and you’re bound to make mistakes. The best thing to do is learn from your mistakes and continue to push the line. Change only happens if you make it happen.

So remember as you are considering joining the conversation of the risks involved. You should not be scared of the risks but at the same time you should not ignore the risks. Social media represents an opportunity to connect with fellow public servants, share best practices and lessons learned and develop yourself professionally. You don’t want to throw away all of that because of one poorly worded or misinformed tweet. At the end of the day, just use your damn brain and you’ll do fine.

Scott McNaughton,

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