Can you hear what I hear? It’s calling you, my dear… @drag0nista and the APS Code of Conduct (and the Closet)

I’m being reversed stalked by the APS Code of Conduct.

It all started when pseudonymous opinion writer, @drag0nista revealed herself to be nymous opinion writer, Paula Matthewson.  While I thought the conversation would soon turn to the conspiracy theory that there’s only one woman on the whole internet and all the ‘females’ on the internet are just the sockpuppet of one person, what instead happened was so baffling, my baffle-buffer exploded and I was left baffled.

Scroll down in the comments and you uncover a strange little conversation about the APS Code of Conduct.  As Matthewson was working as an adviser within the Department of Climate Change, clearly — so the argument goes — it was a breach of the APS Code of Conduct for her to write (even pseudonymously) about climate change.

Meanwhile, the APSC (the department which is theoretically in charge of the Public Service but, in practice, is just a building filled with public servants whose serviced public is public servants: like a meta-public service) has released grand spanking new guidelines to help APS employees make public comments and participate in political debates online.  Of all the guidelines to do with the public service, this gets disproportionate attention for a whole host of stupid reasons.  Did you know that the APSC released guidance on how to terminate public servants?  Did you?  Probably not.  Know why?  Because in comparison to the media talking heads to say something witty and clever about the ‘Twitter Guidelines’, how many fucks were given about anything else said by the APSC ever?  Count?

Zero! Zero fucks!

The highlight, for me, was Greg Jericho on the radio talking about the new guidelines.  Greg Jericho — as most of us remember — was the public servant ‘outed’ by the Australian for writing a blog post so popular that ABC’s The Drum reposted it.  Greg Jericho’s post complained that the media coverage of the election campaign had become trite and trivial.  As if proving the rule that any commentator left in the public sphere for too long eventually goes meta, here on the radio was a celebrity public servant saying not terribly much insightful about the new APSC guidelines.

A lot has been written on the APS Code of Conduct (and of the Public Service Act in general).  It is a complex, strange, and — beautifully, intoxicatingly, ineffably — broken.  What it does — or, at the very least, tries to do — is create a ‘spirit’ to the APS.  Instead of being the prescriptive, deontological, rules-based approach to the values of the APS, it’s an aspirational document.

It’s an aspirational document in the middle of a cold and nasty bit of legislation.

But the people who write comments on internet articles and various megaphones in general are too busy to read… what is it? About three-quarters of an A4 page of text?  Yeah, they’re too busy for that.

For most people, the Code of Conduct seems to be:

1. Don’t write things I disagree with.

It happens on both sides of politics.  If a person identifiable as a public servant makes any kind of public comment, opposition to the idea won’t be: ‘They are incorrect for these objective reasons’.  The e-correct response is: ‘OMFG! U R MENT 2 B APOLITIKAL!’

Hell, if you’re the Leader of the Australian Greens, public servants are breaching the Code of Conduct if a third party reports an account of what was said.  The Greens are all about procedural fairness.

Similarly, Ken Henry was being apolitical when he released a report on taxation reform… unless you disagreed with the recommendations, in which case he was a stooge retrospectively planted by the ALP while Howard was in charge.

There’s a strange inversion of this rule which I call ‘Eltham’s Law’: ‘Something is apolitical if it agrees with me’, used here to explain why Allan Asher (former Ombudsman) was acting apolitically when he colluded with the Greens in order to steer Senate Estimates to his advantage.  I could have sworn I read the words ‘honesty and integrity’ somewhere.

Thus, when we get to Matthewson’s piece, we see the same reasoning.  Matthewson wrote something with which we disagreed while she was linked to the APS, thus it was a terrible breach of the Code of Conduct.  Firings for everybody.

It’s pathetic whining.

There are two important things to take away from the new APSC guidelines and the APS Code of Conduct.

The first is conflict of interest.  People, in general, have a very poor understanding of the concept.  The vast majority of public servants are mooks.  Day in, day out, they see the same type of form, enter it into the same dodgy computer system programmed in the mid-eighties, and cultivate the greyish tan from the rapidly flickering fluorescent lights.  In return for their shitty job which eats at the remnants of their souls, they are forbidden by the Constitution to run for Parliament.  The idea that they can’t vent about their jobs on Facebook like any other mook employee around Australia is preposterous.  The idea that they can’t write self-important blog posts (like mine, for example) about the state of Australia and how much better it would be if Fred Nile were running the show is ludicrous.  For the vast majority of public servants, they’re doing a low-skill job like most of the population.  There is no way that they have a potential conflict of interest, even if they tweet or blog about something they’re indirectly working on.

The people to watch out for are the 15-20% of non-mook public servants who actually know something worth knowing.  Lo and behold, they’re the 15-20% of public servants not terribly likely to make horrendous judgement calls about conflicts of interest.  They’re not going to update their Twitter feed with latest Cabinet-in-Confidence work, with the latest on contract negotiation, or even with where they’re hiding the bodies.

The APSC guidelines are to provide Public Servants with a document to point to when somebody starts whining about apolitical public servants using Twitter.  It’s particularly helpful if that person whining is a senator.

There was a recent example of a Serco employee being suspended for comments he made on Facebook.  Sure, the guy made some vulgar troglodyte comments (Muslims shouldn’t get Christmas presents; Muslim males taught children that women didn’t have rights), but they’re not extreme or radical.  They’re ugly views which don’t really have much place in a sensible world, but they’d barely rate a mention on my ‘PoliticalComment-O-Detector’.  Without more information, the story looks like asylum seeker activists were out looking for indiscretions of security officers to cry about.

Also, it’s not that great a stretch of the imagination to consider an example where a person made a comment or flippant remark or tasteless joke, and then finds themselves in a politically-sensitive area.

We need a bit of a reality check when it comes to conflicts of interest.  A person can hold and express all kinds of private views about their work without it necessarily becoming a conflict of interest.  It seems like the various blowhards seem to think that people only hold private views if they express them.  The Myers-Briggs extroverts are the only people with thoughts.  It’s like behaviourism on steroids: the only mental states are those which are performed to others.

The alternative is that public servants continue to hold their private views, but never express them to anybody, and continue to do their jobs in exactly the same way.  Because they have a particular job, they are to forever keep their beliefs and opinions hidden in the closet.  If the private views are wonky, they’ll never engage with ideas which might challenge them.  Not really a desirable outcome.

The second is much more interesting due to its curious absence: social media and security clearances.  Sure, information which is classified can’t be discussed in the public regardless of what the APSC online participation guideline says.  No guideline is needed to explain that.  What is unclear is how past participation in online activities would affect a person’s future ability to get a clearance.  Let’s say I’m a young rebel who enjoys participating in or supporting Anonymous’ cyber-activities.  Let’s say I’m outspoken in my support of Wikileaks on my Twitter account.  Let’s say I’m a noxious troll mercilessly flaming furries and other internet subcultures.  Things posted online are, potentially, there forever.  Worse, individuals are now the object of collaborative decisions about privacy: I can’t stop somebody from revealing information about me on my Facebook wall, or uploading a photograph of me getting completely wrecked on cheap Greek table wine (manufactured in Germany) and tagging me in it.  If you’re outspoken on a certain issue and, one day, it happens that you end up as the Assistant Secretary in charge of Not Getting Wrecked on cheap Greek Table Wine Branch, what stops past-you from tripping the APSC guidelines?  How can you still appear to be impartial and apolitical when past you still roams the internet in Google caches and wayback machines?

In the old days, young lads could turn their back on their rebellious pasts and become upstanding civil servants.  Now, you have no idea when a stray link will show up on Google.  Will past actions on social media start to interfere with an applicant’s ability to get security clearances?

Until we start to grapple with the concepts and ideas underpinning the apolitical public service, we’re going to continue to see the same dimwitted narrative of ‘Statements I dislike are a breach of the Code of Conduct’.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

2 thoughts on “Can you hear what I hear? It’s calling you, my dear… @drag0nista and the APS Code of Conduct (and the Closet)”

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