Elected public servants, politicians, ascribe to specific political ideologies and policy positions which form the basis of how people select which politicians and parties to support and cast their votes for.
Unelected public servants, the appointed public service, strive to remain politically unaligned and non-partisan, neutral advisors and implementers of the ideological and political wishes of elected politicians.
This system is designed to balance the instability of democracy with the continuity, stability and certainty of continued governance and public service delivery, allowing appointed public servants to continue on an ongoing basis while elected politicians of various political stripes come and go.
Shifting the balance to largely political – where the majority of the public service is replaced at each change of government – would make governance unstable, with nations unable to rely on the continuity of contracts, laws, support or services they need to conduct their lives and businesses.
Whereas shifting the balance to largely apolitical – where elections are rare or of figurehead positions only – would remove the democratic option for nations to change their minds as to how they prefer to be governed, effectively dictatorships in all but name.
Therefore preserving the separation between politicians and public servants is a primary consideration of Australia’s system of governance – as it is in most democratic states – while a delicate balance needs to be maintained where public services willingly and proactively carry out the will of the elected (political) government, however unelected career public servants retain the independence to provide frank and fearless non-partisan advice in their professional lives and the ability to participate as full citizens (with their own political views) in their private lives.
Australia has legislation, codes and policies to maintain this separation, which have largely worked well over the last century, although I – and most current or former public servants – have seen cases where the lines can get quite blurry between serving the government of the day and ‘signing on’ to the government’s political position and cases where individuals have let their personal views overwhelm their professional need to remain non-partisan.
Social media is adding complexity to this mix, providing channels for government agencies and appointed public servants to have a louder and more direct public voice whereas previously government communications was limited to traditional media channels – radio, television and newsprint – where comments could be tightly filtered through communications teams, media specialists and Ministerial offices.
Today’s media landscape allows every government agency and appointed public servant to be a participant, informer or influencer, in public debate. They can establish their own communications channels at little or no cost and distribute messages with, potentially, little or no central oversight (or as many approval processes as they like, but at the cost of speed and relevancy).
While for the most part agencies and public servants have been guarded and cautious in the use of these new channels – ensuring they have sound guidance and principles in place to preserve their non-partisan position – a few channels have become more blurry, presented as government channels but presenting political views.
These channels – and their proliferation as precedents are established – could easily confuse the lines between partisan and non-partisan, politicians and the professional appointed public service. This risks politicising the public service, confusing the public and damaging democracy.
Let me offer a few examples.
Firstly, in the Australian Government’s list of official government social media accounts, Australia.gov.au (managed and administered by AGIMO in the Department of Finance and Administration) lists the Twitter account of Julia Gillard (@JuliaGillard), Australia’s Prime Minister, alongside the accounts of departments, agencies and government programs.
Unlike all of the other accounts listed by Australia.gov.au, Julia Gillard’s account is operated by a politician (Julia Gillard herself) and her Ministerial staff – who are largely political appointments with strong links to the Australian Labor Party.
While Julia Gillard fills an official government role, that of Prime Minister, she is a politician, elected to this public office by her party, who happens to hold enough votes in the House of Representatives to be able to form government.
While her Twitter account (@JuliaGillard) does include apolitical tweets about the Australian Government, it is also used for her personal and party political purposes and cannot be considered apolitical or part of the professional and apolitical machinery of government.
Her account regularly tweets messages that slip into politically partisan territory, such as:
“As a government of purpose and strong policy commitments, we won’t be distracted by their weakness and negativity.”http://www.ow.ly/fKZYs
5 years of Labor. A lot done, a lot left to do. TeamJG http://yfrog.com/oe1bxfnj
RT @AustralianLabor: Greg Combet today gave a great run down of how the #carbonprice is going and the Spring Racing form of the Liberals: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyQ1CR50KwU&feature=youtu.be …
Source: (Original tweet) https://twitter.com/AustralianLabor/status/263893246667812864
It is perfectly legitimate for our Prime Minister to have this account and to use it as she sees fit. However, on the basis of tweets such as those above, her account shouldn’t be included in a list of official government Twitter accounts where it could be confused as the standard approach for all government departments and create a perception that the Australian Public Service is partisan towards the Labor party, rather than a non-partisan body that advises and implements the Australian Government’s (who happens to be the Labor party) dictates.
This account, which has provided good news and updates regarding the QLD government budget in a largely non-partisan way, has also (disconcertedly), published tweets like:
TOUGH CUTS: Wayne Swan should take a leaf out of Campbell Newman’s book: fb.me/uNkp3yfx
Which is a very political tweet indeed.
This account, as a purported departmental account, shouldn’t stray into this type of political commentary and is clearly being influenced by a Ministerial office.
While this Twitter account hasn’t been tweeted from for over 80 days, and may no longer be active, the tweets remain public and therefore the perception remains plausible.
Perception is reality
In both examples above the lines between elected and appointed public servants are blurred – which can create confusion and a perception that Australia’s professional public service is no longer operating in a non-partisan and independent fashion.
While I don’t believe this is the case, as for many things in government perceptions are reality. In a situation where the public and the media are often already confused about the separation between elected and appointed public servants, it is critical for agencies and governments to ensure that the separation remains distinct and clear in perception, as well as reality.
If social media makes this harder, due to the ease of posting publicly and the difficulty in removing material from the public domain, then it becomes even more necessary for senior public servants and politicians to understand social mediums, be aware of the risks, sponsor the creation of appropriate guidance and training for their staff and apply appropriate discretion at all times to minimise and resist any tendency to blur the lines.