Should political accounts for governments declare they're not run by the public service?

I blogged last December on the topic of whether social media was blurring the non-partisan status of appointed public servants.

At the time I was reflecting on the confusion that can be caused when political operatives and members of a politician's own staff use social networks in ways that can mislead parts of the broader community into thinking those accounts are run by appointed professional public servants.

Examples I used included the Prime Minister's @JuliaGillard Twitter account, which was listed, and remains in the list of official government accounts in Australia.gov.au. It's the only account in the list not operated by the Australian Public Service (APS) and it is regularly used to tweet in a partisan way. I don't dispute whether the Prime Minister should use her account in this way, it is her right, only that it appears as the sole politically operated account on a list of APS accounts, potentially confusing members of the community.

I also used an example of the Queensland State Budget account (@QLDStateBudget) - which has now been deleted after receiving significant criticism.

In this case the confusion went further - the account appeared to be operated by the QLD Treasury, but in fact was operated by a QLD Liberal party advisor and used for partisan purposes. This created significant confusion amongst Twitter users and controversy in other media during its brief existence.

Now we have a another account that fits this model.

Operated by the Prime Minister's Media Office, @PMOPressOffice is tweeting a combination of useful facts, partisan comparisons and commentary.

I recognise this account is operated by the PM's Office, not the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and thereby by staff appointed by the ruling party, not by the Australian Public Service (APS). They're called Member of Parliament Staff (MOPS) and are not required to abide by the Public Service Act, instead falling under the Members of Parliament Staff Act.

As such they're not required to be seen to be apolitical when carrying out official duties (such as running Twitter accounts) and are largely appointed party operatives.

However this distinction isn't clear to everyone - and there's already been quite a bit of discussion, and even criticism, directed at the (apolitical) APS, due to a mistaken understanding that this account is operated by them.

This is precisely the concern I wrote about in December, blurring the lines between public service and political operatives can damage trust in the machinery of government, making it harder for the public service to achieve the goals that the ruling political party sets for them.

As I commented about these types of accounts last year, I don't think it is inappropriate for the PM's Office to operate this account - it is making a valuable contribution to public discussion about policy and politics and by providing facts which are sometimes thin on the ground.

However I would suggest that the account makes it clear in its Twitter profile that it is not operated by the public service - mitigating controversy, questions and any mistaken loss of respect for the APS.

This could be as simple as rewriting the profile as follows (fits 160 character limit):

From:

The official Twitter account of the Prime Minister of Australia's Press Office. All tweets are on the record.

To:

Official Twitter account of the Prime Minister of Australia's Press Office. All tweets are on the record. Operated by MOP staff not Australian Public Servants.


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