Social Media has changed so much in our modern world, but probably in no greater way than in politics. This hasn’t all been good, but instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater I believe we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about how we can do better. So, what’s got me on this train of thought today? It’s a story published in Blacklock’s Reporter, a site that does some great investigative work and research. They have brought forward a situation that raises an interesting dilemma, one that I believe deserves some discussion:

Before going into this, it’s time for a bit of disclosure of my own to start this off, to give you an idea of where I’m coming from with this. Many people who used to read my old blog know that I’m a teacher by profession. But back in 2007 I left teaching and joined the Federal civil service. For two and a half years, between my teaching days and my time on Parliament Hill, I worked in a low to mid level civil service job while writing at my old blog and even started a short-lived podcast. I was also involved in the NDP, volunteering my spare time on local campaigns and committees within the party.

But when I joined the Federal civil service, the first thing that I did was talk with my bosses and my union about what I could and couldn’t do, which was quite a lesson onto itself. Because I never talked about my work life in my blog, I was told not to start then. I was also told that while I could criticize and discuss issues and policies from the government of the day, I needed to keep in mind how it might be perceived by others. One of the rules of thumb that I followed was to never talk about my ministry, my minister or the issues found there. At times, that meant not talking about some subjects that I had strong feelings about, but that was the bargain. In the end, I disclosed all my activities to my superiors and they gave me the greenlight on what I could do.

That also meant they told me when I had to say no. For example, back in the 2008 election I was approached by CTV to do a partisan bloggers panel on Don Martin’s show, one segment a week for the duration of the campaign. It was something that I really wanted to do, but as usual I ran it by my superiors and my union first before accepting. The discussions that came from that were quite fascinating to be honest, and the things that were taken into consideration were wide and varied. In the end, I was told that I couldn’t do it, which I accepted and moved on. That was part of the bargain too.

So, when reading this piece on Blacklock’s I couldn’t help but think back on my days in the civil service and how I struck the right balance in this. The fact is that as a civil servant you have the right to be politically active and have a voice, but only to the point where it doesn’t put the integrity of your job at peril. In my job, I had to honestly think about the clients I dealt with and how could my actions affect my ability to do my job in a professional manner. It’s a delicate balancing act, but it’s one that can be done and thousands of civil servants do it everyday from all political persuasions.

In this case in particular, there are a couple of things that jumped out at me as red flags right away. For starters was the anonymous name part; using anonymous naming in political social media is just a bad idea in general. Writing in your own name brings a piece of accountability to what you say and how you speak to others. Writing with anonymity strips that accountability away, and when your real name comes to light, you end up with stories like these splashed all over National Newswatch. Writing with anonymity also eats away at your credibility, which I don’t believe helps anything.

The other thing that jumped out at me here is the language that this person used and his directly and personal attacks on politicians. I’ve always operated with a rule that “I never write anything I wouldn’t say to someone’s face”, and I do that because all of our words have consequences, said to the face or written on an anonymous blog. The writer in question even once wrote that “As someone who is both politically outspoken and a civil servant, it is the only way I can be this active on Twitter without censoring myself”. That is a deeply flawed place to start from right away. When you go to work in the civil service, you’re signing up to be censored to some degree. That doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have an opinion, voice it or volunteer on a campaign. But that does mean you don’t get to curse out MPs and just trolling people in nasty ways. There are limits that are in place for very good reasons. So there are consequences for such actions, as this story today teaches us.

As the Blacklock’s piece points out, the Public Sector Values and Ethics Code prohibits “unauthorized political activism”; that doesn’t mean that you can’t be active and can’t have an opinion, it just means that you need to do it within the boundaries set out for you. That means you need to reach out to your department and disclose what you’re doing. That means you need to be transparent. Those are all things that seemed to have not happened here.

One final piece of this story worries me though, and that’s how it will affect civil servants as a whole. We know that certain parties love to bash civil servants and when they form government, they tend to view them in partisan terms as “not a part of the team”. Those views couldn’t be further from the truth, as I can attest to from lived experience. A civil service workplace is just as diverse in views and opinions as any other workplace out there, and there isn’t a cabal of civil servants in the shadows trying to undermine and take down certain parties or governments. It’s just not the case. But this story will feed that narrative in a way that certain people will be dining on this for months. Whenever a politician needs an example to serve it, they will point to this, and that does civil servants across the country a major disservice.

In the end, this story should serve as a warning; not to keep people from speaking out but to engage in more respectful and constructive tones. At the end of the day, I believe that if this individual hadn’t been so rude, crude and outright mean towards so many people online, this wouldn’t even be a story today. We all have freedom of speech, even civil servants, but what we don’t have is freedom from the consequences of that speech. Let this story serve as a reminder of that fact and hopefully start the conversation about how we can have more constructive and positive discussion about the important matters of our day on social media. We can do better, and that starts with us calling for it.

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