Public servants across the APS have been given the green light to campaign in a personal capacity for the yes and no camps in this year’s Voice to Parliament referendum, but the approval comes with a firm warning that any engagement on the referendum must not bring the service into disrepute.
The Australian Public Service Commission has issued referendum guidance for APS employees that goes to their obligations around talking about the referendum, volunteering for either side and using social media to engage with the topic.
The guidelines sanction personal involvement with the referendum debate so long as it is done in a way consistent with public servants’ obligations to maintain public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the APS.
“APS employees, like all Australian citizens, are entitled to express personal views on the merits of the various positions on the referendum question,” the guidance document states.
“APS employees have a lot to offer the public conversation as an informed and engaged cohort.
“In engaging publicly, you should ensure that your conduct is lawful, that it is clear you are expressing your own views, and that your engagement does not conflict with your public service role.”
Things get a little trickier for public servants whose work has them directly involved in advising on or implementing the referendum.
“For such employees, public comment on the referendum in a personal capacity may be given greater weight – and cause greater concern – than similar comments made by employees with different duties, or by members of the public, because these employees may be perceived to have privileged access to knowledge and influence within government,” it states.
“This does not mean that if you are working on the referendum, you must not publicly engage with it at all in a personal capacity.
“But when considering whether to do so, it’s important to be mindful of how that engagement could reasonably be perceived by members of the community, and the impact it might have on their confidence in the APS as an impartial institution.”
There is an even stronger caution for those employed in the more senior ranks of the APS.
“Generally, the more senior your APS classification, the greater the risk your personal engagement in the referendum might affect public confidence in the APS.”
The direction goes on to suggest the community is more likely to believe that senior employees’ comments are based on specialised inside knowledge.
The opinions of senior leaders and authority figures are given more weight than those of more junior employees.
“The more senior an employee, the more difficult it can be to differentiate comments they make in a private capacity from those made on behalf of their agency or minister,” it says.
For all APS employees, the direction is that whatever they do in a personal capacity, it cannot breach the high standards of the APS Code of Conduct.
“One of your obligations under the code of conduct is to behave at all times in a way that upholds the APS Values and Employment Principles, and the integrity and good reputation of your agency and the APS,” the guidelines state.
“This means that your behaviour outside work is subject to the code to the extent that it could reasonably be viewed as failing to uphold the integrity and good reputation of your agency or the APS, or it could reasonably call into question your capacity to comply with the Values and Employment Principles in your work, for example, your capacity to be impartial or respectful.
“It’s important to be aware that your personal engagement in the referendum could potentially breach the code of conduct.
“There are a range of risks and considerations you should think through carefully. The higher the risk that your behaviour could undermine trust in the APS, the more likely it is to be inconsistent with the code.”
Public servants have even been directed to let family and friends know that they are expressing personal views only when discussing the referendum.
The Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum is expected to be held sometime in the last quarter of this year.