if you’re a public servant it’s pretty hard not to understand why the public service code of conduct is important to a functional bureaucracy. the need to maintain political neutrality, and the confidence of all members of parliament is essential to making a public service work. if an mp can’t believe that the people serving the government of the day won’t in future do as sterling a job as they currently do, then the important relation between that future member of the government and his/her public servants is jeopardised.

it’s with interest then that i’ve been following various discussions over at the Network of Public Sector Communicators blog. in a nutshell, the issue of social media like blogs and wikis are, and have been, generating a fair amount of heat for the people who think about these kinds of things. for one thing, is it permissible to limit public servants sharing information and generating knowledge?

naturally, that last sentence is a little loaded. there’s no one who’s actually interested in limiting the public service. but what social media does is open up the possibility that public servants could reveal a little too much, and not in the air hostess kind of way, but by perhaps talking about ideas they’re thinking about in their jobs, and having those ideas seized upon as “government policy”.

and why is that bad? for one, an idea under development by a public servant will be subject to several methods of review before it becomes government policy. any sort of “out of the box” thinking by a policy analyst or adviser of any description might be spoken at the pub. but that half-pissed discussion does not automatically equate that analyst’s minister’s opinion. nonetheless, half-pissed conversations about whatever the heck it is you’re working on do happen. and do happen often.

so how does this differ to a social media? a blog would put all those ideas in print, and once in print, there’s every chance that “angry, of waikanae” will be whacking out letters talking as if that blog is the minister of [insert job description]’s new policy. letters that someone’s department or ministry is required to answer. and no self-respecting public servant willingly generates excessive work for someone else.

the question of the utility of social media to communicate with the public at large remains though, especially if the target of your publications are other public servants, or persons who understand what you’re trying to work out. thing is, most of the day to day stuff i’ve seen analysts working on is politically neutral, if not only because it is the public servant diligently working on a task set for them by the government of the day.

anarchist utopia? immediately minister.

neo-conservative army to invade a third world country? immediately minister.

but is it wrong to go to another person and ask, “hey… what’s an anarchist utopia actually look like, you reckon?”

i think that’s the heart of the matter i’d like to know more about. is it possible for social media to be used as a way for public servants to discuss ideas, publically, but still maintain political neutrality?

after all, all-of-government thinking is important to ensuring better outcomes for new zealand as a whole. if we can have good ideas shared and discussed, wouldn’t that democratise some of the policy process?