By Julian Bajkowski
Conflicts over the personal and official use of social media by public sector employees are again under the spotlight after a Federal Circuit Court Judge knocked-back an attempt by a Canberra public servant to obtain injunction on any move to have her sacked over tweets that were made in a non-official capacity.
In what has become be a landmark case for public servants across Australia, Michaela Banerji, a public affairs officer at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, has lost her bid to have a stay put on moves to dismiss her over personal tweets she made using the handle @LaLegale.
The case has garnered intense interest in Canberra and across state governments because it has embroiled one of the Commonwealth public service’s most prominent official social media protagonists, Sandi Logan who is National Communications Manager at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
At the centre of the legal case is whether or not public servants have an “unfettered implied right (or freedom) of political expression/communication” under the Constitution as put forward by Ms Banerji.
Judge Warwick Neville found that they do not.
DIAC took action against Ms Banerji after a number of tweets were posted under handle @LaLegale that were critical of the DIAC and the government’s actions, particularly immigration detention centre policy.
The @LaLegale tweets clearly caused heartburn within DIAC, an agency which has been at the forefront of harnessing social media to convey departmental messaging directly to the public and bypassing frequently critical intermediaries and filters like the media.
An investigator from DIAC recommended that Ms Banerji be dismissed for breaking the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct that precludes the bureaucracy from publicly attacking the ministry and policies.
However Ms Banerji went to court to try and stop the moves to dismiss her and accused Mr Logan of bullying her.
On Wednesday, Mr Logan directly referenced the issue and the accusation of bullying when he addressed the Security in Government conference in Canberra.
“I usually start these presentations by introducing myself: Hi, I’m Sandi Logan, I’m here from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and I’m here to help you,”Mr Logan said
“If you believe the papers over the last couple of days I am also here to bully you – but I can assure you that is not the case – and those are matters that are highly instructive, great learning opportunities, great lessons in where we are in the workplace and where we are headed in the workplace with our staff using social media.”
Accusations aside, there is little doubt that there are growing expectations for public servants across the board to keep their social media activities on the tame side, especially when it comes to partying and politics.
However the issue is becoming an increasingly tricky tightrope to walk because government agencies essentially cannot ban public sector employees from political activities such as membership of a party or union.
One distinctly slippery issue is industrial activity, such as protests against funding cuts, where public servants routinely use their private social media accounts to help organise and gather public support.
Some private sector organisations routinely use specialist human resources and reputation management firms to monitor their employees’ social media activity with a view to weeding out anyone who has the potential to cause problems.
However public sector organisations appear to be firmly resisting that trend with representatives of DIAC, the Australian Federal Police and the Victorian Department of Justice all telling the Security In Government Conference that they do not monitor their staff’s private accounts.
In the case of Ms Banerji, @LaLegale’s tweets responded directly to official DIAC tweets – an almost guaranteed way of attracting the attention of the Department.
Those manning the keyboards to post official tweets say it essentially comes down to a matter of trust in those public servants authorised to speak in social media fora. That trust is even more essential when there is an expectation of real time interaction with the public.
“It’s the trust of the CEO. There is no committee to determine which 140 characters from the alphabet we use there’s trust,” Mr Logan said.
“It’s 24/7 you can’t just do it 9 to 5,” Mr Logan said, adding DIAC had “on-call arrangements from 6pm to 6am” to deal with both traditional media and social media.
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