Transparency and blogging

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Personally, I’m not a fan of anonymous blogging because I’m a fan of transparency. But The Australian newspaper recently outed “Grogs Gamut,” a regular blogger who has contributed to the public debate and expressed, at times, political preferences. It did so because this particular blogger had actually begun to have impact. Also, this particular blogger worked for the Department of Environment and actually defended Peter Garrett. Why? For the simple reason that the insulation scandal was not of his making and he was a scapegoat. This is fairly amusing because one would have thought that anonymity may have been sought in order to be able to criticise your employer not to defend them! Surely it is hard to profit of potential pandering to one’s employer if you do it anonymously. It’s not like I am going to benefit from sending a secret rumour that MBS’s Dean is the best we have ever had — she is, by the way — instead, if I’m going to do that I may as well be open about it even if that diminishes the force of my opinion.

Nonetheless, anonymity was sought; presumably, in part, because the system of incentives and internal organisation of the Australian Public Service required it. But that is the problem. Why should public servants be required to be silent any more than I may be required to do so? Last time I looked I work for an organisation that is substantively owned by a public institution. Yet no one has ever suggested that I not blog on something because of that. Instead, I have to make judgments and from time to time have to take flack for potentially holding opinions that may reflect the fact that I am so employed. There is no true independent soul out there. I try to be independent but I don’t live in a vacuum. I have a consulting business as well that pays the bills and so there are some things I don’t blog about as a result.

So what will the APS do here? Here is what Grog is concerned about:

And so that’s it. The ‘big’ secret is now out. Is this the end for me as a blogger and as a public servant? I hope not. I like my job, do it diligently, do it well (in my opinion), and I don’t believe I have contravened the APS code of conduct – if I did I wouldn’t have started the blog in the first place. I did not stay anonymous because I thought I was doing anything wrong, just that I seriously did not think it mattered.

But if to keep doing my job means I have to stop blogging and tweeting, well then I’ll do that; this is just a hobby after all. I guess I’ll have to try my hand at fiction. I would be sad if it comes to that, but that is life.

I think it would be tragic. Public servants should have the authority to openly state opinions but also be responsible for those they state. If you want to publicly voice opinions that will cause you trouble at work, you have to understand the consequences. But preemptively silencing voices because they might do that is surely not warranted. I know of many in the private sector who are so silenced and it is a shame because their voice may matter.

Let’s not make it a condition of public service in one domain that you have to forgo all other service to the public.

15 Responses to "Transparency and blogging"
  1. So yes, in an ideal world, nonanonymous blogging would be great in the name of transparency. But in a nonideal world, we require anonymity in order to increase the flow of information (under the assumption that forced secrecy and backroom shenanigans are no good for society or the market)

  2. I never read the blogs, but from the limited examples provided in the Australian, it could be viewed as a case of pro-Labor propaganda/opinion, rather than rational discussion or debate. (And I’m generally a Labor voter.)

    Having an opinion is not synonymous with providing the public with pertinent information. (It’s usually the media that investigates and breaks stories – think “Children Overboard”, not public servant wistleblowers.)

  3. DP, Grog certainly doesn’t hide his ALP bias, but his blog is full of well-reasoned analysis and opinion.  If you’ve got the impression that it’s “pro-Labor propaganda”, then the Oz has done its job well.

  4. Read this quickly, and my quick response is I completely disagree with the proposition that public servants, who are employed and paid to advise politicians and governments on the execution of policy, should be able to openly state opinions of a political nature regarding politicians and/or government policy. That is just complete crap.

    They are employed to provide confidential, independent advice to governments, which would be fundamentally undermined if they start expressing public opinions on the merits of different politicians and/or political parties. It would be like CBA allowing its employees to start blogs criticising the bank.

    Criticism is, of course, a good thing: but it should be kept private, and be ultimately left to democratically-elected politicians to decide what they wish to do with it.

    If you want to express political opinions, you have every right to do so. But just don’t expect to also be able to hold down a job advising governments.

    @grogsgamut has three choices: (1) shut down the blog and twitter account and keep his job advising government; (2) keep on blogging and tweeting, but do not go anywhere near politics (stick to personal stuff); or (3) keep on blogging and tweeting, but do so under a new pseudonym.

  5. cjoye: Seriously? You’d say people can’t blog about anything of a political nature because they’re employed by a government department? Not everyone in the APS is giving policy advise you know. I’m thinking here of all those folks who simply implement government policy or provide support functions. Are they to be silenced to?
     
    I’m with Joshua. Give people the choice, within guiderails.

  6. @David Berry,
    Fair comment on Oz piece, but I believe cjoye summed it up pretty well: public servants don’t operate in a vacuum – they are employed to serve the government of the day. It’s hard to do so if you are publically criticizing them. (The example of CBA – or indeed any private sector organization – puts it into perspective.) That’s why we have current affairs journos, I presume.

  7. I strongly disagree with Christopher.
    I think that public servants should not publicly promote party or other views on certain issues, where their duties are directly concerned with advising on or directing the implementation or administration of government policy on those issues.
    Coincidentally enough, that’s the APS policy, too.
    As Grog has pointed out, the APS policy states:
    “It is quite acceptable for APS employees to participate in political activities as part of normal community affairs.APS employees may become members of or hold office in any political party. APS employees, whether or not they are members of political parties, are expected to separate their personal views on policy issues from the performance of their official duties. This is an important part of professionalism and impartiality as an APS employee.”
     
    That seems fair to me.
     
     
     

  8. Matt C — i think participating in a political party, or even holding office, is entirely different to writing a very public blog vigorously criticising senior politicians. this is just totally inappropriate for a public servant to do. nor does it seem to be permitted under the APS guidelines.

    again, i would suggest you consider a sanity test: how would any private company, like BHP or McKinsey, respond to an employee maintaining a public blog that was highly critical of his employees. he would normally be sacked on the spot.

  9. “public servants don’t operate in a vacuum – they are employed to serve the government of the day. It’s hard to do so if you are publically criticizing them.”
     
    It isn’t, actually.

  10. Would it be appropriate for military personnel to publicly endorse a particular political party or advocate a certain policy position?
    As already described the problem with public servants participating in public political discourse is that they are indirectly influencing political decisions through the public. The role of public servants should be to provide policy advice and and expert opinion. Elected officials then make political decisions according to whatever factors they see fit.

  11. cjoye – ” i think participating in a political party, or even holding office, is entirely different to writing a very public blog vigorously criticising senior politicians.”
    What would you be doing exactly when you participate in a political party – publicly opposing the policies of, and vigorously criticising senior members of the opposing party perhaps?  Seems very similar to me, regardless of whether your party is in power or not.
     

  12. I think there needs to be a distinction between work and private life for public servants. Grog seems, to me, to have been handling that divide pretty well. I really can’t see any justification for denying public servants, on the whole, a political voice as private citizens outside of work.

  13. The issue about anonymity is that the focus is then on the merits of the arguments not the identity of the person making them.

  14. I agree with cjoye’s view that a CBA employee would be sacked on the spot. But I’m not sure the analogy applies as well in the political arena as it does in the private sector. Public servants are not forbidden from having political opinions – afterall they are allowed to vote, indeed they are compelled to vote, just like everyone else – they are prohibited from being partisan in their employment (more or less like everyone else). If Grog had gone to the pub and expressed an opinion few would be overly concerned, so it’s not clear how or why doing so on a blog is any different.

    I also agree with the notion that public servants should be seen to be non-partisan – that is why they tend to use pseudonyms in their writing. The blogosphere is enriched by participation and cooperation of many diverse and diffuse viewpoints, shutting out a large proportion of highly intelligent and articulate voices will not add value to the blogosphere.

    Long story short; there are trade-offs between competing principles. So far the Australian has been unconvincing in their explanations for outing Grog.

  15. Here is a quote from Grog Gamuts reply to the Oz article.

    “Here’e what the Public Servie Commission says about political views:

    Participating in political activities.

    It is quite acceptable for APS employees to participate in political activities as part of normal community affairs.

    APS employees may become members of or hold office in any political party.

    APS employees, whether or not they are members of political parties, are expected to separate their personal views on policy issues from the performance of their official duties.  This is an important part of professionalism and impartiality as an APS employee.

    Where an APS employee is involved in publicly promoting party or other views on certain issues, and where their duties are directly concerned with advising on or directing the implementation or administration of government policy on those issues, there is potential for conflicts of interest “.

    He then wrote,

       Well I’d say tweeting and blogging about Tony Abbott at a community forum at Rooty Hill is fairly well smack in the middle of “normal community affairs”.

       I am not a member of any political party.

       I do separate my personal views.

       Once again I have never written about any policy or program that I am directly concerned with advising on or directing the implementation thereof [or even indirectly for that matter].

    He also wrote that he writes the blog in the evenings, so no, he isn’t using work time.     Clearly the critical posters haven’t read what he actually wrote and are perhaps visitors from News Ltd.   Just saying.  They’ve had a go on other sites.

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