Facebook or Faceless?

Politicians at the digital leading edge are creating Facebook entries to reach out to younger voters. So why have the federal and Ontario governments decided to block access to Facebook for their public servants?

The Ontario Public Service, like most employers, recognizes that permitting some personal business on government computers helps employee morale. Of the 600 million pages visited by Ontario public servants in March 2004, 8% were for sales, 7% sports, 5% travel, 3% investing, 3% gambling, 2% chat, and 2% match-making. Only .1% was blocked and most of that was remote webmail (see Digital State at the Leading Edge, p. 96). In OPS management thinking, Facebook, like hotmail, apparently is the thin edge of the wedge of employees’ spending too much office time online for personal matters.

But there may be a deeper reason. Traditionally, public servants are anonymous, in the sense that their policy advice to ministers is confidential. Thus ministers, not public servants, are responsible to the public for decisions. “Confidential advice to ministers” remains a justification for refusing freedom of information requests. Other aspects of public service anonymity, however, are being chipped away. Service delivery principles dictate making the names of front line staff available to the citizen being served. Canadian governments post online directories of public servants – though some other countries, for example the UK, do not.

Individuals typing alone at their screens often post the most intimate details of their lives, seduced by the apparent anonymity of the setting. But would a public servant want the world to know that, away from the office, he or she is a deep ecologist, abortion rights activist, Focus on the Family stalwart, or Tamil militant? Would that not conflict with the assumption of apolitical neutrality, the ability to serve any government-of-the-day faithfully? The level of self-expression found on networking sites can conflict with the traditional facelessness of the bureaucrat. A public servant contemplating a Facebook entry, even from a home account, should be wary.


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