On public service, partisanship and social media

by DaniGirl on December 19, 2008 · 15 comments

in Meta-blogging, Rants and rambles

Let’s say I have a hypothetical friend. She’s a lot like me, but let me stress this — she’s not me. We have a lot in common, though. We both view our jobs with the public service as something of a noble calling and a privilege to serve Canadians. She is such an amazing boss and mentor that she recently won a national award of excellence for people management. She is a little more senior than me in the management tree, a little more politically conservative, a lot more sophisticated about politics. We both have a blog. She and I have both called Stephen Harper an idiot on our blogs, me mostly over childcare issues and her over the recent economic statement fiasco.

As it turns out, she has recently applied for and been offered a new job in a new department. As this is the 21st century and she’s plenty savvy about social media, she wasn’t surprised when she went to meet the new team and found out that they’d googled her, and found her blog. She was surprised — and that’s a bit of an understatement — when the senior manager at the new department contacted her old senior manager and said that the political entries on her blog are contrary to the Public Service Code of Values and Ethics. (!!) They told her that not only did she have to agree to not ever blog about politics again, but to take down the existing political posts. Not posts critical about the department or the work environment or anything sensitive, mind you. Just the sort of observational rant that any citizen might make over drinks or the backyard fence. They said that this was a “dealbreaker.”

I am – hypothetically, of course – outraged over this. We’re talking about someone who blogs in a manner very similar to me, maybe 30 percent personal, 65 percent pop culture, 5 percent political. I’ve read the posts in question, and they’re no different than what you’d see in the average Letter to the Editor, if not a hell of a lot better written and a lot less vitriolic.

What do you think? Should an ordinary public servant be allowed the same freedoms as any citizen, to air their opinions – political or otherwise – on a private blog written on private time? And if it were you, would you dig in your heels and stick up for your rights or acquiesce for the sake of making nice with your new peeps?


{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Annika December 19, 2008 at 8:51 am

Who would even care what a nameless, faceless public servant does or thinks in her personal time? That’s really odd.

If your pal’s blog is really important to her, she should dig her heels in. If her public service career is more important, I guess she’ll have to let it go.

I work for the feds as well, and find this to be an incredibly weird situation…as in, who would even care?

2 alison December 19, 2008 at 9:09 am

That seems way out of line. I read the blog you’re talking about, and there is nothing in there that seems different from letters to the editor or conversations I’ve heard (and had) over a beer. Have you or she checked out this ethics code? I can’t see how someone’s political beliefs in their private, non-work life are anyone’s business. Are they saying that saying these things to someone over coffee is OK, but posting them on her blog is not OK? This seems wrong to me. She has a hard decision to make. And it doesn’t seem fair.

3 alison December 19, 2008 at 9:15 am

OK, I just read through the code that you linked to. Did not see anywhere anything remotely applicable to this situation. Did not see: Must agree not to air personal opinions about the current Prime Minister on personal blog done in personal time on personal computer. Must have missed that part. I’d challenge it.

4 Emma December 19, 2008 at 9:32 am

I’m a chicken shit so I would never ever blog about (detailed) politics or my public servant work. I think the most I’ve ever mentioned is going to vote and being confused about who to vote for. (Jesus, maybe I need to check my old posts!)

I’m sorry that this happened to her. That’s exactly what I worry about – I need this job too much to risk it. And thankfully I don’t find that it’s stifiling my opionions too much to self-censor. Hell, I do it all the time on other topics as my family reads my blog!!

5 Meghan December 19, 2008 at 9:56 am

Really cool topic. Way back before blogging was big my brother worked at a large chain grocery store. He had a bad day and bad mouthed his boss electronically and posted his comments on a board. He was fired. I think this situation you are describing is similar……….BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING!!!

6 suze December 19, 2008 at 2:35 pm

I think I’m gonna have to email you my background comment on this one, lest I get into trouble…

Oh but I have opinions on this – As long as you’re not speaking as a Public Servant, but instead, as a private citizen, I don’t see why this should apply. Yes, the public service is supposed to be neutral. When I am at work, I do not let my personal feelings toward the government to affect what I do. When I’m at home, on my own time, communicating with my friends, I don’t feel the need to remain unbiased. At that point I’m speaking as me, for me, not as a representative of my department…

7 Loukia December 19, 2008 at 3:35 pm

I think the more senior your position is in the gov’t, the more careful you have to be, even with your ‘personal’ blogging time – for instance, if Harper had a blog in which he talked about not liking certain politicians of another party, people would have a field day with that… perhaps he wouldn’t get ‘in trouble’ but people would talk about it… or any politician, for that matter. It’s unfortunate, though.

8 cinnamon gurl December 19, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Interesting question and discussion. I’m a provincial civil servant and every election we get reminded of our political rights and limitations. My understanding has always been that you’re free to engage in political stuff as long as it doesn’t touch your work.

I think I read the blog you’re talking about, and I wonder if the problem is because she also blogs a fair amount about her workplace, in her real name. Maybe it’s the combination of her identified workplace and political commentary? Also, her comments did refer to her experience as a public servant, working with the PM — that could be a pretty gray line, because aren’t we supposed to keep information we have as a result of our work confidential?

Also, a blog is very different from a coffee conversation, in that it is searchable – or rather, findable – and it persists, long after the conversation: as I understand it even if we take a blog down, it remains in some master archive of the web.

Regardless of all that, the situation at hand totally sucks.

9 Fawn December 19, 2008 at 5:02 pm

I feel angry about this, too, and I don’t even know the woman or the blog. On the other hand, I think cinnamon gurl is absolutely right on all counts. I’m a territorial public servant myself, and I never blog anything about territorial politics. It is unfair in some ways, but the fact that we’re such a small community makes me very aware of possible consequences of airing personal political opinions in a very public forum.

10 liz December 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm

Dig in her heels.

11 Eric Jacksch December 20, 2008 at 12:14 am

I just wrote several paragraphs, only to get an error when I clicked on “Submit Comment”…

In summary, there was an interesting Supreme Court of Canada decision on this topic in 1985. It’s long, but it makes for good reading:

http://www.psagency-agencefp.gc.ca/rp/icg03-eng.asp

Keep in mind that in the private sector, blogging that the CEO is an idiot or critizicizing the company will likely result in one of those very uncomfortable chats with HR, no matter what time of day you wrote it.

12 Dee December 20, 2008 at 4:15 am

As a public servant, this decision has made me beyond uncomfortable. I have watched senior management in more than one department, over recent years, struggle with the idea of their employees’ personal lives becoming public through social media. They are frightened by this thought and would like to offically guide them in their activities. Only they can’t, because it is your PERSONAL LIFE. Say what you want, the blogger in question never reveals her employer, other than saying she is a public servant. And blogging about the PM is not like bad mouthing your boss, or the CEO. The PM is a political figure that affects every single one of our lives. As a Canadian citizen, I have a duty to be informed, and a right to voice my opinion. It’s called a democracy. You do not lose those rights because you become a public servant. Show me how this is affecting her work and I will side with management.

In a better world, she would fight this, because it is wrong. In the real world, it would probably ruin her reputation. Sad, isn’t it?

13 andrea from the fishbowl December 20, 2008 at 8:21 am

I read this post and had to return to it today to comment. It is a sticky situation. On one hand you have the issue of this woman’s personal liberties. Of course she should be able to talk about her work. But blogging is publishing. And she’s publishing about her employer – more or less, right?

You wrote:
>And if it were you, would you dig in your heels and stick up for your rights or acquiesce for the sake of making nice with your new peeps?

I think the senior people probably don’t want to hire someone who rocks the boat.

If it were me I would republish under a pseudonym and not tell anyone at work. ๐Ÿ™‚

I think many bloggers (not to mention the Facebook/MySpace generation) don’t understand that publishing their personal views on the Internet might eventually come back to bite them in the butt. Googling, then deciding whether or not to hire based on what kind of information is found, has become standard practice now. It doesn’t mean that it’s right, or fair, but the fact remains that we have to be careful about what we write.

Blogs are an open book of a blogger’s personality. If a boss doesn’t like what s/he finds there – for whatever reason – sadly, it might just end up being that dealbreaker.

14 jennP December 21, 2008 at 5:23 am

As much as I find that it sucks that this is happening to her… i think i agree a little. I am not good with words so I hope I can explain myself!

the things in this situation is that you mention this person is in management. management comes with a bigger responsibility. as you probably know, it is very very touchy when you manage as you deal with many people of many opinions and backgrounds. When you write something online, not everyone is able to differenciate your work person and your personal life person. someone will always end up finding something in your personal life to bite you in the butt BAD or make you look horrible at work. I think that this person definitely has a right to her opinions, but perhaps under a ficticious name.

Very recently, a supervisor at a large employer in Canada where my hubby works wrote a letter to the editor in the paper. In there the person was giving personal comments on the corporation and its staff. the problem with that ? this person was a supervisor, and so it got emplyees really upset with her views. Her views did not reflect those of the supervisors in general… but it did affect the workplace, the union, and the staff. This supervisor ended up being reprimanded.

i work for the public service and i never ever ever blog about work, and basically not about politics either. sometimes we dont think something will come back to haunt us… but it does.

i wish your friend the best of luck! ๐Ÿ™‚

15 BeachMama December 26, 2008 at 12:16 pm

Interesting post Dani. As much as it might not be fair for her to have to make the choice, I can see both sides.

As she should be free to write what she chooses on her blog, on her time (and that is IF she is NOT blogging at work, which we all know a lot of people do) it would be nice that the two worlds wouldn’t collide.

But, as an Employer, I personally would not want to hire someone who would feel free to speak out against the workplace in such a way that it could be hurtful to others or contrary to the overall view of the Company. And no matter which way you look at it, working for the Government means that Prime Minister Harper is ultimately your boss, until the next election…

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