Watch your wiki-ing, warns comms man

Public servants need to follow certain rules when interacting on the web, says blog

Public servants have been warned to watch their online behaviour after a new Wikipedia tool exposed illicit editing by overseas government agencies.

Jason Ryan, on the Network of Public Sector Communicators blog, is advising other public sector communications staff that editing Wikipedia is okay, in some circumstances — especially to ensure accuracy.

There is nothing wrong with editing public sector information, as long as public servants are aware of how the web works, and as long as they adhere to certain principles, says Ryan.

“If your agency does have a page then you want to make sure that it is correct. What you don’t want to be doing is spinning or misrepresenting the truth,” he writes in a recent posting. “The other thing you really don’t want to be doing — particularly from your work machine — is editing the page of your Minister.”

Every edit on Wikipedia is saved and, unless you know how to post anonymously, every single edit is traceable back to the organisation that made them, he adds.

In order not to destroy a government agency’s reputation, public servants need to follow certain rules when interacting on the web, writes Ryan.

“If you are going to effectively manage your agency’s reputation in this space, remember that, as a public servant, you are held to a higher standard,” he writes. “Make sure you have a thorough understanding of how social media work, and the principles you should be observing when you interact with them.”

In a separate post, Ryan suggests that if public service organisations don’t already have a policy on blogging, it would be a good idea to start thinking about one. But organisations should not see this new media channel as a threat. Instead they should include social media in their communications strategies.

In the State Services Commission’s 2005 annual report, Commissioner Mark Prebble said: “I am concerned about the potential risks blogs can pose. The existing principles of the Public Service Code of Conduct still apply in this very modern medium and state servants should still be very careful that they do not bring the Public Service into disrepute through their private activities.”

Ryan says the blogging issue is worth thinking about in terms of how you attract and retain excellent state servants.

“What will the brightest graduates who enter your agency and are networked with their peers through these media think when they sit down in front of their dumb terminal, effectively cut-off from their social networks?”

On the site, he lists ten principles government agency staff should consider online. These include sovereignty — if it is an agency initiative, the site should be hosted in the .govt.nz-namespace; access — the site must comply with government web standards; and transparency — it should be made very clear who is posting and how to contact them. This is not the place to be an anonymous public servant, he writes.

Content on the blog or wiki should not be disclaimed, he says. Public servants should also be prepared to accept critical comments, he says. “Social media is about reciprocity, if you are going to engage and invite comment then accept the good with the bad,” he writes. “Don’t delete comments because they are critical of your agency or policies.” Posts should be made regularly and staff in charge of the social media forum must be prepared to engage people when it suits them, even if this means checking and responding to comments or editing outside office hours, he says. The content should be an honest reflection of the poster’s thinking, but keep in mind what you can legitimately say about your agency or project in public, he warns. “No matter how small you think your audience, once you hit the ‘publish’ button your content is in the public domain. Make sure you don’t surprise your Minister this way…” When interacting on the web in the name of their agency, public servants should always make sure they act within the public service code of conduct, writes Ryan. “Once it is published, there is no taking it back,” he writes.

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