Cambridgeshire Council Blogging Policy

Saturday, August 22, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Blogging, Public Sector, Social Media, Standards, Technology

Cambridgeshire Council shared their Social Network and Blogging Policy on Public Sector Forums the other day where they have set out the rules for what they expect employees to do in terms of using blogs and contributing on social networks.

Before even reading the policy, I can tell that this is a good idea. This is something that Councils — and other large organisations — need to be dealing with. If you don’t have a policy about it, employees will do it anyway, and will share information on Facebook and so on. You need to be aware of it, and you need to ensure that your employees are aware of their responsibilities in this regard.

This is a particularly good example of such a policy because it is short and punchy. You don’t need, and don’t want a fifteen-page policy full of legalese and incomprehensible management-speak. The document clearly sets out who the policy relates to and why:

…details the ground rules for employees who should ensure that the content of their blogs/social networking sites does not bring the Council into disrepute or breach their obligations under the Code of Conduct [...] This policy applies to all Council employees and Members.Cambridgeshire County Council Blogging/Social Networking Policy

The Council provide simple advice — if you can, try not to mention your work or reference the Council on the web. If you do mention/reference however, you need to make it clear that any views you express are your own and are not necessarily representative of the council, and in addition, you must not breach the Data Protection Act; disclose any information not already public; post illegal material such as child pornography; breach Council copyright; make defamatory remarks about the Council, colleagues or service users; publish anything that could undermine public confidence in you or the council; and not misrepresent the Council.

For the most part, this is a sensible list of things a council employee shouldn’t do. However, I think that in the case of some of the issues — such as breaching the Data Protection Act or posting child pornography — the Council would be quite within their rights to take disciplinary action even had they not mentioned them in the blogging policy (and indeed the employee may have more significant issues to deal with — such as criminal prosecution — than an internal disciplinary matter). But it does no harm to mention them in the policy, I suppose.

I’ll just be clear: I fully support Cambridgeshire County Council having a policy, I think it’s great that it’s so simple and straight-forward, and I think it is fantastic that they have chosen to share it with others. However, that does not mean I have to agree with all of it.

Firstly, let’s look at “publish material or comment that could undermine public confidence in you as an employee/Officer of the Council”. The problem with this is probably that it is too broad. What would be deemed to “undermine public confidence”? If you go out on a works leaving do, and some photos of you and colleagues the worse for wear end up on Facebook, is that undermining public confidence? Would that be the same for members of the Drug & Alcohol teams? Is it undermining public confidence to express your political views, if clearly stated as your own? Would that be the same for BNP supporters?

On the other hand, I think it’s important that the Council don’t try to get bogged down in too much detail: if examples of the sort of thing that might undermine public confidence are available elsewhere on your intranet, just link to those — I’m sure this sort of thing will apply to your behaviour in public as a whole and not just online.

But I am also unclear about precisely what the council mean when they say:

make defamatory remarks about the Council, colleagues or service usersCambridgeshire County Council Blogging/Social Networking Policy

…simply because there appears to be key differences between some definitions of defamation:

The accepted legal definition of defamation is “the publication of a statement which tends to lower a person in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally.”

Defamation law exists to protect the reputation of a person from defamatory statements made about him/her to a third party without lawful justification. A statement is defamatory if, when said about a person and published to a third party, it would make ordinary people think less of that person.Channel 4

Any disparaging statement made by one person about another, which is communicated or “published,” may well be a defamatory statement and can give rise to an action for either libel or slander in English law.

Generally speaking, slander is when a defamatory statement has been made orally without justification. If the statement was made in a permanent form, for example, recording words onto tape, it would not be slander but libel.

Libellous statements are those that are recorded with some degree of permanence. This would include statements made by email or on on-line bulletin boards.

There’s a slight difference in implication here. Some seem to suggest that any negative statement may be defamation, but it would only become slander or libel under other circumstances (for example, it not being true). I would assume that the Council would be using the term ‘defamation’ meaning ‘untrue and negative remarks’, but this isn’t entirely clear.

After all, if they were simply using it in the ‘negative’ sense only, this would mean that if I was a resident and an employee of a local authority, then I would have less rights to complain about something the Council was doing badly than some other resident would have. And surely that can’t be right.

But while I might call for clarity on that point, Cambridgeshire County Council have already done more than many other Councils. They’ve given their employees some guidance on what they can say. And it’s a very useful starting point for any other Councils (or similar organisations) wishing to do the same…

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41 Comments to Cambridgeshire Council Blogging Policy

  1. paul canning says:

    August 22nd, 2009 at 7:50 am

    I completely agree with the point about hazy statements on what cannot be said. Clear examples of what is OK and what is not are needed.

    I found where I used to work that written policy, which appeared to relate entirely to whether you could complain about the council in a letter to the local newspaper, could easily be read as saying you couldn’t complain about the state of the flowerbeds.

    This had a chilling effect on me because I could see how a manager could use it to threaten anyone who lived in the town and took an interest in local affairs they didn’t approve of. Council workers are not civil servants who agree to be ‘non-political’ when they sign up.

    In practice some staff were involved in ‘political’ areas locally where clashes with the council happened and their manager’s were OK but because the policy was so vague, or because it was assumed they shouldn’t, I’m certain that others weren’t. And as almost any civic activity relates to the council in some way I’m sure it would put people off getting involved locally.

    It didn’t help that most staff didn’t actually live in the city.

    I did point out the problem with managers, the union and even a councilor but none of them understood it *as a problem so as far as I know this vague ‘code of conduct’ still exists.

  2. paul canning says:

    August 22nd, 2009 at 7:52 am

    Forgot to mention that what initiated my interest was a manager commenting negatively about my posting comments on a local bulletin board. I was told this had been ‘noticed’ and I ‘had to be careful’. Then I was referred to the ‘code of conduct’ – after I asked what ‘careful’ meant.

    So I stopped posting comments …

  3. Local council blogging policy and self-censorship | The Wardman Wire says:

    August 22nd, 2009 at 8:51 am

    [...] Pickard has a great post about policy on council staff blogging, which is sparked by Cambridgeshire making their Social Network and Blogging Policy (PDF) publicly [...]

  4. Council blogging policy and self-censorship — LocalGovCamp says:

    August 22nd, 2009 at 8:55 am

    [...] Pickard has a great post about policy on council staff blogging, which is sparked by Cambridgeshire making their Social Network and Blogging Policy (PDF) publicly [...]

  5. Matt Wardman says:

    August 22nd, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    >the Council would be quite within their rights to take disciplinary action even had they not mentioned them in the blogging policy (and indeed the employee may have more significant issues to deal with

    I have some sympathy with the difficulty of framing a policy, for example the more specific dos and dont’s that are listed, the more likely that things which are *not* listed will be defined by a Tribunal to be acceptable for that reason.

    I think that there are some problem areas – for example, if an employee criticises safeguarding for being the total disaster many people think it is going to turn into, will that be construed as bringing the council, with their legal duty to use the system and provide informal information for the database, into disrepute?

  6. Richard Taylor says:

    August 22nd, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    I would be very worried if councils tried to stop elected members from criticising their councils.

    This policy states it “applies to all Council employees and Members” yet its provisions appear to refer only to employees.

    Is the reference to “Members” in the policy a mistake?

  7. Karl Limpert says:

    August 23rd, 2009 at 11:52 am

    Unfortunately for employees, disciplinary procedures are & always will be deliberately vague – it’s absolutely impossible to even imagine some of the incidents that do arise as a disciplinary matter.

    The ACAS Code of Practice (employers are expected to take this into account when forming & going through a disciplinary process) makes clear that policies should give an idea of the types of conduct that may be minor, serious, or gross misconduct. The final assessment will always rest with managers, but if the employee could not reasonably recognise that their conduct was inappropriate, a warning & necessary training should follow.

  8. paul canning says:

    August 23rd, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    FYI. Another comment thread on this here

    Containing the thought that ‘boundaries will be set by count cases’!

  9. Phil Bradshaw says:

    August 27th, 2009 at 2:22 pm

    The other strange inclusion in the policy which no-one has commented on is the prohibition on links from an employee’s blog to the Council website. This does not seem to be a Council website policy – unlike some dinosaur sites – so I wonder what the thinking was. Surely it should be encouraged – to give a balanced view – not discouraged and is the reasonable other side of the coin to not attributing personal views as being those of the Council.

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