Image by zachstern via Flickr
Jack Pickard has a great post about policy on council staff blogging, which is sparked by Cambridgeshire making their Social Network and Blogging Policy publicly available.
He notes that it is mercifully brief and written in plain English but points out that the bit which relates back to the council's general policy on how staff behaviour: it is full of hazy statements about 'bring us into disrepute' and 'being libelous'.
There’s a slight difference in implication here. Some [definitions] seem to suggest that any negative statement may be defamation, but it would only become slander or libel under other circumstances (for example, it not being true). I would assume that the Council would be using the term ‘defamation’ meaning ‘untrue and negative remarks’, but this isn’t entirely clear.
After all, if they were simply using it in the ‘negative’ sense only, this would mean that if I was a resident and an employee of a local authority, then I would have less rights to complain about something the Council was doing badly than some other resident would have. And surely that can’t be right.
I agree, it's not right. Council staff do appear to have less rights to voice their opinion of the council than other residents.
As a former journo I well understand that libel can indeed be read many ways and in practice it is the decisions of courts which set precedents.
There was a famous case in Australia where a fat rugby player successfully sued because being called fat would affect his income. I don't know if this precedent was overturned by another Australian court decision (and Australian law has its basis in English law) but we've all seen the rich use 'libel tourism' in English courts to slap the bothersome down.
I also know from my own experience that the vagueness and lack of clear examples of where exactly the council draws the line has a chilling effect - as libel law can - and in practice can mean that council staff become expected to be a-political in their own time, much like civil servants, despite this not being part of the contract they sign up for.
This appeared to relate entirely to whether you could complain about the council in a letter to the local newspaper - like most councils I expect they had a neurotic co-dependent relationship with the local newspaper - and could easily be read as saying you couldn’t complain about the state of the flowerbeds.
This had a chilling effect on me because I could see how a manager could use it to threaten anyone who lived in the town as I did and took an interest in local affairs which they didn’t approve of.
In practice a couple of staff I knew were in fact involved in ‘political’ areas locally where clashes with the council happened and their manager’s were OK with it.
I’m certain - I know - that others weren’t either because the policy was so vague, or because it was assumed they shouldn’t get involved. And as almost any civic activity relates to the council in some way I’m sure it would put people off.
I'm sure staff thought of themselves as being policed and regarded in the same way that civil servants are when in fact that's not what the contract is between a council and its workers. I know I did. I simply stopped posting comments on local issues on the bulletin board.
I did point out the problem with managers, the union and even a councilor but none of them understood it as a problem (It probably didn’t help that most staff didn’t actually live in the city) so as far as I know this vague ‘code of conduct’ still exists.
Council staff can potentially have all sorts of comments they make online used against them due to the vagueness not of blogging policy but the age-old and undoubtedly identical contractual 'conduct' policies which they refer to.
As Jack says, yes, having a blogging policy is a great step forward but unless a lot more work is done most council staff simply won't feel free to express themselves online let alone talk freely about their work lives.