The Government of Canada published Open and Accountable Government to its Parliamentary Backgrounders on November 27, 2015. I haven’t read the whole document. I skipped ahead to Appendix J: Personal and partisan use of social media by Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries after a tweet from Martha MacLean of GAC (the department formerly known as DFATD, formerly known as DFAIT). She wanted to know if I’d considered Appendix J when I did my digital makeover of Minister McKenna.
The Government created the appendix to address social communication as it occurs online — and I understand the need to do so. However, as written, the guidelines make two notable mistakes:
- They implicitly equate social media as newswire services for institutional uses
- They create conditions which complicate life for MPs (particularly those in Cabinet) and Government communicators
Where to begin?
Look no further than Minister McKenna for proof. It turns out she commands three Twitter accounts. There’s her personal Twitter account (@cathmckenna) on which she’s identified herself as both an MP and Minister, and tweets about politics, her ministerial work, her community work and her experiences. She has an “official Twitter page of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change” (@ec_minister) where she tweets about her ministerial work and her experiences. And, she has an account for her Community Office (@cmckennaottawa) where she tweets about her community work and her experiences. I imagine this situation is like having a single office with three desks she constantly has to run between.
I understand the need to be cautious about communicating partisanship over Twitter. However, politicians are already publicly communicate partisanship during Question Period, in their mailers and during public events. In television interviews they regularly inflect partisan view as they discuss department and Government business. Do guidelines exist about venturing into partisan territory during conversations on government phone lines?
Any colour as long as it’s black
The guidelines actually try to address that.
Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries may choose to use their personal/partisan social media accounts to link to, share or highlight content that is published on government accounts and websites, where such linkage is equally available to any outside party.
However, an earlier clause suggests that posting to a personal account using Government resources (that is, networks and devices) is not allowed. [Bold-face emphasis that follows is mine.]
Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries may maintain personal and/or partisan social media accounts that are distinct from Government of Canada accounts. The distinction between these different types of accounts is the same distinction that exists between government-supported websites and the personal/partisan websites that are maintained by Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries. In both cases, the same general principle applies: government resources must only be used to manage, create or modify content for use on official Government of Canada channels (e.g. print, social media accounts, mobile applications or websites). Such government resources include, but are not limited to, employees, networks and devices.
I take this to mean MPs cannot use their Government issued devices or their office network connections to update any social media property that could be argued is personal. I believe the only way around that is for the Government to create, manage and oversee accounts (following a specific naming convention) that remain under its control in perpetuity, assigned to the MP du-jour. I believe any account managed by the department’s public affairs staff is a reasonable alternative to splitting MP communication.
The digital age has changed the way work, how we work and has eliminated social and professional boundaries on where and when we work. Government guidelines should make it easy for MPs, and understand that politics is part of the system. Codes of conduct (which include rules regarding the disclosure of party affiliation and political roles) might be a better fit for reigning in MP behaviour where it could be a problem. Ultimately though, the people will decide how they feel about MPs who anchor themselves in hyper-partisanship.