Ignorance is no defence

To start with, I will make a confession, before I started looking at Social Media (about 2-3 years ago), I wasn’t that familiar with the fine details (or small print) of the policies and terms of conditions of service that I was always subject too.

But wanting to ensure that I stayed within “the law” so to speak, I started reading them – and over time – this helped me understand that the best approach here to creating a social media policy was the one that built on the existing policy framework. Also I didn’t want to do something wrong and plead ignorance…

Ignorance is no defence!

…So it is actually well worth understanding the policy framework you work within.

A question posted on the Communities of Practice by Michelle Ide-Smith got me thinking about this exact situation earlier today – the question was:

Does anyone have a social media policy which covers the use of social media in a personal capacity by officers who are also parish councillors?

For example how might you deal with a situation where an officer is critical of a council policy on a parish council blog, whilst acting in their role as a parish councillor in personal time. But the opinions that they put across may conflict with their role as a council officer.

My response to this question was pretty straight forward really, I didn’t really think too much about whether or not the question related to social media but was actually focused on the fact that someone might have a dual role. This clearly in my head meant that it is likely to already be covered by the existing employee code of business conduct.

My council’s employee code of business conduct has a range of policies sitting underneath but one of them is the policy around Business Pecuniary Interests – it is also clearly sign posted and referenced in Section 1 of the councils Social Media Policy – Personal and Professional Responsibilities

My council has strict procedures in place to ensure that the private business interests of elected members are clearly recorded in order to avoid any conflict with their public role as decision makers. It is keen to have in place equally robust and transparent processes for officers. This would include external positions such as School Governor, Parish Councillor, or where you might be engaged by another company, as a member of staff, partner, director, substantial equity/share holder or consultant etc.

I’m pretty sure that this is standard Local Government policy practice so is likely to apply in Michelle’s scenario above.

As an employee of the council I had to declare the fact that i was elected as a school Governor, however as a school governor I also have to declare conflicts of interests in that position as there is also guidance on that side, which is aimed to keep the Governor body robust and transparent. I’m not directly familiar with Parish councillors but if it is anything like a county councillor then they will also have a code of conduct, referred to above, which will also include conflicts of interest.

Our policy states that when a member of staff declares this interest – The line manager in signing the form is confirming that they are aware of the potential conflict of interest and

  • EITHER….. the line manager does not consider that it has a material effect in relation to the work of the employee within the council;
  • OR….. the line manager will work with the employee to ensure that an actual conflict of interest will not arise (this may involve re-distributing work for example).
  • OR….. if a line manager cannot identify an obvious way to avoid the employee having a conflict of interests, then an approval may have to be withheld until a solution can be identified that negates the conflict of interest or in extreme circumstances the council may potentially require employees to relinquish certain responsibilities or interests to remain in the employment of the council.

In this context, it is irrelevant whether or not we are referring to social media – it is about professional behaviour, whether the medium of social media allows for additional amplification only goes to reaffirm my point about understanding the policy framework you current work within.

I also accept the many cases that say we should simply trust all our staff to act professionally, after all, we have been doing this without social media in these kinds of situations anyway haven’t we?

But we might also have a role in ensuring that we all understand the policy framework we operate in – Doing this will go along way in enabling people to feel empowered and offer a great deal of value in whatever role they play at any given time