Public servants are private citizens too: Why public servants in Australia should participate anonymously
While online communication comes with an optimism in easing access to public deliberation, this access is not universal. Barriers to online political participation and communication is commonly attributed to the digital divide – the gap between those who have the skills and resources to participate online and those who do not. Another type of a digital divide appears in Australia – a divide between those who are employed in the public service and those who are not. Abiding by the public service code of conduct and other cyberpolicies, Australian public servants are barred from political communication. Effectively, this barrier limits the political rights of citizens employed in the public sector to the ballots and excludes them from public deliberation.
Blurred public and private identities
Public deliberation in a public space (including online platforms) should have “few restrictions on what citizens can say” and no reservations on who contributes to discussions. Because this conception of public deliberation is pillared in inclusion, it connotes that citizens’ opinions are expressed and evaluated by others. If the sphere for public deliberation is not diverse and accommodating of contesting claims and reasons, it resembles systems where the public sphere is hegemonized, unreflective, or totalitarian.
In a democracy, for one to withhold their opinion and avoid contributing to public deliberation can be symptomatic of an uninviting sphere and its associated risks. Hostility in the ‘opinion climate’ can be one of the triggers of self-censorship. Another factor is institutionalising self-censorship, by increasing the social risks associated with contributing to public deliberation. Both are common in authoritarian states but is problematic in a democracy. In the particular case of Australian public servants, the public service code of conduct excludes them from participating even in their private capacities on the basis of their jobs.
Online platforms have presented an aspect of visibility that blurred the lines between private and public identities. To be concerned with regulating the digital footprint of public servants is important. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the then-White House press secretary, premiered news headlines as she used her White House official account to tweet a personal incident in 2018 in which she named a restaurant that asked her to leave. Sanders’ tweet attracted criticism because tweeting from an official account, where the “blue tick” next to the account makes this coming from the White House, constituted an abuse of power. By contrast, in Australia, the current regulation scrutinises public servants when they are using their private accounts and contributing in private capacity.
The Australian Public Service code of conduct denies public servants the right to free political communication because of concerns over how holding political opinions can affect their performance. In this light, Australian public servants are considered to be violating the code of conduct when expressing a political stance in public, private, and even anonymously. Unlike Huckabee Sanders, Michaela Banerji who was an employee of the Department of Home Affairs, tweeted anonymously protesting offshore detention of refugees to Australia. Banerji’s sacking on the basis of violating the code of conduct was solidified as the High Court gave a verdict that public servants are not entitled to an implied right of political communication.
The question then becomes, is it democratically inclusive and equal to take away a group’s right to political communication because of their employment? By conflating the digital footprint of public servants in their private and public capacities, their exclusion from public deliberation presents a risk to the vitality of the Australian public sphere.
Why anonymity? Because public servants are private citizens too
As the current policies do not recognise the difference between public servants contributing in public capacity and between their participation in public deliberation as private citizens, self-censorship at all times constitutes another duty in their service. To disconnect these two identities is important for saving democratic equality and inclusion in public deliberation. In the long-run, gradual exclusion of more opinions in the public spheres will contribute to less diversity and limited argumentation.
By means of concluding, settling the exclusion of public servants from public deliberation and their inequality in terms of exercise freedom of speech and expression online, anonymity is key. While the current policy disqualifies anonymous participation, anonymity can resolve the tensions brought by exclusion of public servants. Anonymity on the one hand buffers the hostility and risks associated with being identifiable. On the other, in case contributions violate confidentiality, or affect a public servant’s impartial and neutral performance, government agencies have the capacities to vindicate these cases.
Nardine Alnemr is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, University of Canberra. She researches the interaction of algorithms in online communication with deliberative democracy. Her research interest also includes internet governance and digital rights.