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Saturday 22 August 2009

Council blogging policy and self-censorship

chilledImage 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 (below) 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.

I first became aware of this problem at my previous council job when a manager spoke negatively about my posting comments on a local bulletin board. I was told this had been ‘noticed’ and I ‘had to be careful’. Then I was referred to the ‘code of conduct’ – after I asked what ‘careful’ meant.

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.

Cambridge Shire County Council social media policy

Postscript: In comments on Jack's post two useful additional points.

Richard Taylor notes that the blogging policy applies to staff and councilors and says "I would be very worried if councils tried to stop elected members from criticising their councils."

Karl Limpert comments on my cross-post (my highlight) to the Wardman Wire that:

Unfortunately for employees, disciplinary procedures are & always will be deliberately vague - it’s absolutely impossible to even imagine some of the incidents that do arise as a disciplinary matter.

The ACAS Code of Practice (employers are expected to take this into account when forming & going through a disciplinary process) makes clear that policies should give an idea of the types of conduct that may be minor, serious, or gross misconduct. The final assessment will always rest with managers, but if the employee could not reasonably recognise that their conduct was inappropriate, a warning & necessary training should follow.

“…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.” Unfortunately, this work will be in the form of disciplinary action - the policy will evolve as it is called upon, but until the first few cases arise & set precedent on what the treatment is (employers need to act consistently in these processes) the employees will have to venture into blogging unclear about the rules.

Matt Wardman suggests that the Civil Service Code of Practice, which he has written by Tom Watson but I'd tag Jeremy Gould more as author, be used as a model.

On GovLoop its editor says:
I think it can be scary for many to have employees participate online but there is an even bigger risk of us not being part of the conversation. And as the military analogy goes if they train and trust us with rockets and jets, can't they trust us to blog.
Michael Walsh reckons that:
The key here is that the individual cannot represent the organization or disclose legally protected information.
I agree and added that:
What I perhaps am not making clear here is the policy has a problem with what's written. It veers off into legalese to cover this area. The policy should provide here some encouragement and it should be possible to give some examples which 'set the stage'. One could be 'yes, you can link back to our website' or another 'yes, you can comment about services as a resident but don't discuss your job'.

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  1. Paul,

    There's a tantalising link to guidance on using social networking sites to engage with communities. This hasn't survived the conversion to PDF. Do you have the link by any chance?