Blogging and the Public Servant

After digressions into the misreporting of a minister’s well-intentioned efforts to encourage a healthy debate and the fallacy of the Tory Party’s efforts to claim ownership of ‘open source politics’ and a few other things beside, I think its time to make a considered contribution to Tom’s discussion of the merits, or otherwise, of a Civil Service ‘Code of Conduct’ covering public servants’ blogging activities.

Instinctively, I have to say that I’m with Matt Wardman, who suggest that a formal code of conduct may be unnecessary as the values of the existing Civil Service Code; integrity, honesty, objectivity, impartiality and political impartiality, plus a degree of trust in the capacity of civil servants to behave as adults may be more than sufficient.

And yet there’s more to this issue than meets the eye because while the Civil Service Code is clearly and obviously applicable to those few Civil Servants who blog while ‘on duty’ and write for the small but growing number of official departmental blogs, its not that kind of blogging which is giving cause for concern but rather what some civil, and other, public servants get up to in their own time while writing as, notionally at least, private citizens.

The central question here is not particularly a new one – to what extent do public servants retain their status as public servants and, therefore, remain bound by the codes of conduct and practice governing them in their performance of public duties even after they’ve ‘clocked off’ for the evening and left the office. Actually, its not even a question that’s unique to the public sector, one can and probably should contemplate the same question in regards to private sector employees and the extent to which the implied contractual bond of mutual trust with their employer obligates them to refrain from certain courses of action even when acting as a private citizen.

If one considers the idea of a code of practice/conduct for blogging from the standpoint of the Civil Service as an employer rather than as an arm of the state then one very quickly finds that there is a very good reason for it to introduce just such a code of practice, one which defines and clarifies the extent to which engagement in a particular private activity, in this case blogging, will be regarded and treated within the context of the contractual relationship between the Civil Service, as an employee, and the individual, as an employee. In much the same way that many employers include provisions in employment contracts covering situations in which employees are accused of, arrested for or convicted of criminal behaviour occurring outside their normal working hours, provisions which seek to define those conditions under which such behaviour can be deemed to have severed the employment contact, so it is by no means unreasonable for the Civil Service to make similar provisions in respect of the out-of-work conduct of its employees when this may, equally, be treated as a breach of trust sufficient to terminate their relationship.

Call it simple expediency if you like but I know from experience that its much easier for an employer to act on a clearly defined policy – and for an employee to operate within that policy – than it is to operate under a generic statement of values – and its certain much easier to defend your actions at an employment tribunal with such a policy in place if the employer/employee relationship suffers a catastrophic break down.

If there is an overarching problem with having this particular debate right now it is, as Matt suggests, because we are having it for what are markedly the wrong reasons. As Matt correctly notes in starting to lay out his own ideas for ‘guidelines’:

1. 99.9% of Civil Servants are sensible and professional people of integrity.

2. Civil Serf is an exception in not behaving professionally.

3. Exception control for the 0.1% in this case should be by disciplinary action of the 0.1% under the Civil Service Code, not by creating guidelines for the 99.9%.

Absolutely… but I would also venture that its only the precise circumstances in which this debate has arisen that have given rise to Matt’s next observation:

4. Blogging guidelines are only an unnecessary result of a need to be seen to take dynamic action.

That may well be the ‘thinking’ in government circles at present – they are, after all, reacting to a very specific situation, but this in no sense precludes the possibility of the civil service, or any other employer, introducing ‘blogging guidelines’ either for very different reasons or with a very different purpose in mind. I’ve given one such general scenario – clarification of the employer/employee contractual relationship – and there are a number of others as well. We could easily, for example, have had much the same debate in the wake of the Daily Mail-evolence’s shameful, misleading and politically-motivated hatchet job on Owen Barder albeit that the context and tone of the debate would have been very different insofar as we would have approached things from the standpoint of looking for ‘guidelines’ (or more likely general principles) with the objective of trying protect civil service bloggers from scurrilously mounted and unjustified media attacks and considering the question of whether, and to what extent, the Civil Service could or should have intervened to protect Owen and/or challenge the appalling conduct of the Mail.

Such a debate could well lead to the formulation of ‘guidelines’ that serve a very different purpose and which treat the employer/employee relationship in a very different manner, one in which adherence to the mutually agreed guidelines creates an obligation of trust requiring the employer to come ‘riding to the rescue’ if the employee is attacked as a consequence of their activity.

This is a far more complicated situation, looked at in its totality, than some contributions to the current debate might seem to suggest and what is actually needed is likely to fall somewhere in-between Matt’s relaxed approach and Tom’s search for clarity – stick with the principles of the Civil Service Code, yes, but provide civil servants with some sensible guidance on how best to translate those principles into practice, the latter being particularly important I suspect, as many of those public servants who do decide to give blogging a go are likely to be raw and inexperience ‘newbies’ to the cut and thrust realm of on-line discourse by anyone’s standards, let alone those of a veteran like myself.

Civil Serf is an exception, as Matt suggest, as needs to be treated as such but that doesn’t remove the need to provide ‘guidelines’ for other public sector bloggers, it merely changes the emphasis of those guidelines from addressing ‘exception control’ to those of self-protection and self-preservation in what can be a rough and uncompromising medium.

  • Unity

    I’ve posted again here:

    My thinking is that Civil Service Code principles + local conversations with managers should be adequate. I’m not sure that uniform practices across the Civil Service – which may lead to a lowest common denominator (perhaps = most restrictive) approach. That comment depends on where the edges of the Civil Service are drawn for these purposes (local authorities? NATS? Military ATC? Rail Companies? Privatised Services? Executive Agencies?). Do we take the “Ministerial Authority” boundary, the “Ministerial Responsibility” boundary (which is much, much smaller!), the “TUPE” boundary, or some other boundary.

    At a time when restrictions on freedom are a reflex (would you go along with that?), I’m inclined to fight hard to keep blogging a regulation-free space as far as possible.

  • Final thought: could someone drive this “bottom-up” not “top-down”? Who could do that?

  • Could this be driven from the bottom up?

    Yes, I think it could by means of engaging the Trade Unions and Civil Service associations to advocate from the POV of employees.

    As for ‘localising’ guidelines rather than going for global regulations, again that’s both feasible and eminently doable – that’s the advantage of looking at this as essentially a contractual issue between employer and employee, everything is negotiable and easily varied according to situations and circumstances. You wouldn’t, for example, take anything like the same stringent line with, say, clerical staff working in a Jobcentre, as you would with clerk working for the Admiralty.

    There’s an over-arching principle here, first expressed by Churchill in regards to the Official Secrets Act, which holds that the purpose of government secrecy is to pursue and secure the legitimate national interest not enable government and the civil service to conceal their own incompetence, which is not such a bad starting point to be taking here.

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