Working for the Australian Public Service – some thoughts

I just finished up a role in the Australian Public Service (APS) that saw parts of my blog locked down, and my twitter turned to private thanks to the agency’s and general APS’s social media policy.  But that’s not all.  Let me talk you through my 8 and a bit months working in the current APS.

First I want to start that I worked for over 15 years in the Immigration Department early on in my career, finishing up there in 2009.  I loved what I did, appreciated my colleagues and was proud I was making a difference.  I left because I felt that the agency was increasingly risk adverse and I felt that I was no longer trusted to do my job.  I thought I understood the requirements of the APS, but I didn’t know how much they’d changed since 2009 and 2018.

For a little bit of background, let’s start with Michaela Banerji, a former Immigration staffer, who was sacked for tweeting critically about the Government’s asylum seeker policy from a pseudonymous Twitter account.  She later claimed compensation for the psychological condition she developed as a result of the sacking, and was eventually successful in court.

The key part of Michaela Banerji’s story is that the judge hearing her case of unfair dismissal found:

Judge Neville found Australians had no ”unfettered implied right (or freedom) of political expression”.

”Further, even if there be a constitutional right of the kind for which [Ms Banerji] contends, it does not provide a licence … to breach a contract of employment,” the judge said.

The investigator, when Immigration suspected that Banerji was the owner of an account critical of Immigration and the government recommended that (same source as above):

…Ms Banerji be dismissed as a result of the two breaches of the Australian Public Service’s code of conduct, noting bureaucrats must avoid making ”harsh or extreme” criticisms of politicians or their policies.

However, Ms Banerji, who has a law degree and represented herself in the case, argued none of her tweets were ”offensive or damaging to individual persons, but instead, they are expressions of political opinion, to which all Australian citizens have a constitutionally implied right”.

”It is evident that they are a simple expression of political opinion, made in [my] own time away from work.”

She said any finding of misconduct against a public servant ”for expressing a political opinion contravenes the implied constitutional freedom of political communication”.

Ok, so that’s some background on the current environment in the APS, particularly in relation to employee’s ability to publicly state their opinions about things.  This article from August 2017 is probably the most recent bit about social media and APS employees:

Public servants could breach tough new social media rules if they criticise the government by “liking” posts on Facebook or Twitter or by sharing negative information or comments in private emails.

The public sector union and Labor have called a new social media guidance released by the Australian Public Service Commission on Monday “overreach”, warning government employees should be allowed to participate in normal democratic debate.

Liking, reposting and sharing social media content or even selecting Facebook’s “angry face” icon could breach employment conditions, while not taking sensible action about objectionable material posted by someone else could be seen as endorsement.

So… part of my employment was that I consented to a background check, which included me listing for them every social media account and website that I owned.  I gave them the address for this blog, my cookbook website, my Flickr account, LinkedIn, and my twitter details.  I was told that the background check could take up to 4 weeks, but was usually done in 2 weeks.  Given this was over the January school holiday period, I thought it would be closer to 4, but was surprised when it was 5 weeks before I received a call from HR.

Apparently there was a problem, and the problem was my blog.  You see, I have blogged freely about politicians and other individuals who have preached hate about people like me, or other marginalised groups.  This didn’t align with the social media policy.  When I asked them about the fact that some of the material they had problems with was literally years old, and clearly written before I had even contemplated working in the APS again, I was told that it didn’t matter and that I had to take it down because the APS is a-political and has to be seen as always having been so forever and ever (even though it really isn’t) and that employing someone who had publicly criticised politicians (read the current government) was not going to happen, so I had to tidy stuff up.  I tried to explain that the internet is forever, and no matter how much I unpublished or deleted these blog posts, they were still there on the internet.  They told me that they knew that, but I had to choose.  At this point I didn’t have a job, and I needed one, so I thought I’d swallow my pride and tidy up my internet presence and see how it went.

I asked them to tell me which blog posts they wanted removed, and this is where we ran into the first problem.  They told me that they’d send me the agency’s social media policy and I had to determine from that which ones I should remove.  This apparently meant it was up to my discretion, but if we’re honest, it just means that they potentially had another stick to beat me with if I fucked up, because I didn’t delete/hide all the blog posts that they had issues with.  So I was extra cautious with hiding anything that might potentially be a problem.

I also locked my twitter account to private and spent significantly less time there than I had prior to getting this job.  That made me a bit sad as I like my twitter friends, and I like getting involved with conversations about things with people.  But I needed a job, and that was that.

On starting I did all the standard induction things, including reading policies relating to HR.  One of the policies, not the social media policy I had been sent, but something similar, had a phrase in it that will stick with me for a long time:

“Do not engage in uncalled for personal attacks”.

I thought about this phrase a lot.  Who makes the judgement as to whether or not something is called for?  I can guarantee to you that it is not the employee.  If someone complains to the agency that they were personally attacked by an APS employee on social media, then that employee could find their employment at risk, regardless as to whether they thought the personal attack was called for.  (I can’t even define what a called for personal attack would be).

We were also told that we should mind our language.  Now I don’t recall what policy this was in, nor how it was phrased, but I got in trouble twice for using the word “fuck” and “shit” in two different emails.  Both times I was describing a situation, at no point was I swearing at someone.  The situation I was describing was the ill health of a friend, not a work situation.  When I asked for the list of words that I was not allowed to use, I was told that there wasn’t one (there clearly was because my email was being monitored for using them).  I also said it was 2018, and I really didn’t think that they general public would object to public servants swearing, and I was told that we had to maintain public confidence.

I also heard other people self censor their own swearing, or censor colleagues who swore in the workplace.  It was not a good thing to hear.  In one case my director said that she thought an excuse provided to her by a supplier was “bullshit” before apologising to the other people on the phone with her and said it was “bs”.  At the lunch table a group of colleagues turned on someone who had said “fuck” saying, “oooh, you dropped the f-bomb”, and “don’t use the f-bomb, you’ll get into trouble”.  That group of colleagues were all young by the way, all of them would have grown up with far more swearing than I would have.

In the end I decided I had to leave because I couldn’t be an effectively representative for the bisexual community and continue working in the APS.  I have to be free to call our politicians and lobby groups for their queerphobic behaviour.  I have to be free to call out homophobia, biphobia, transphobia and intersexism where I see it, including online, and working for the APS meant I was muzzled.

Now, please don’t think for a moment that the people I worked with are bad people.  The policies and constraints they operate under are limiting, but they all believe in doing the best job they can and providing the public with the best outcomes they can manage.  The Australian Public Service is a group of people who are constantly being asked to do more with less and less, and who despite this keep churning out services and products.  Yes there are problems, Centrelink’s call response times for starters, but there are a lot of people doing everything they can to keep the machinery of government working.  Blame the politicians for the issues that constant “efficiency dividends” have caused, the ASL cap (limiting the number of staff agencies can employ), and effectively gagging the APS from being able to give free and fearless advice to ministers and the government (as well as discussing their own political opinions).

I’m out now, heading back into private enterprise.  No employer is perfect, but I will never be able to work for the APS while these policies are in place.  Personally I think that limiting your employment pool to those who are happy to not express political opinions is going to bite future governments on the arse.

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