Navarro, Cheryl: Ethics and Government Officers/Employees on Social Networks

FOREWORD

“At our club meetings, we had a cork board and push-pin bulletin board, with 3×5 cards with things like ‘Need ride to next meeting’, ‘Let’s get together for a group-purchase of memory chips’, ‘Anyone else have a KIM-1?’, etc. So, I came up with the idea of computerizing that.” – Ward Christensen [1]

This was the beginning of social networking. As bulletin boards expanded, so did their scope, and soon members began to actually converse with each other, replying and responding to posts as multi-user capability became available. [2]

Communication is the main purpose of social networks such as Facebook, Friendster, MySpace, blog sites, Twitter and Yahoo Messenger, among others. These “public places” have become popular as they effectively serve as venues for advertising, posting of news and photos, comments and almost everything virtual.

But then again, in spite of its “coolness”, social networking also has drawbacks. If it aims communication, it is inevitable to experience miscommunication. Of course, social networking per se is not disadvantageous. It’s just that social networks are generally composed of text and photos whose intended and true meanings may be misinterpreted by the public or a person’s particular audience.

The privacy of the person and security of information are also at risk. What kind of information can a person publicize using his own account? Well, it depends on who owns that information. If the info is his, say, his curriculum vitae, he may publish it everywhere and anywhere allowing publication, at his own expense and at his own risk. Nevertheless, if the information is his employer’s, or anybody else’s for that matter, he may NOT do so unless duly authorized. This rule is elementary.

In government agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), where interaction via social networks, blogging and instant messaging, is not prohibited, though not mandated, social networks are viewed as useful tools in facilitating an open, expeditious and efficient communication between and among officers and employees of the DFA and even to other government agencies, bureaus and offices. Communication equals information. Given the fact that the Philippines has embassies and consulates around the world, effective communication in a split of time is preferred.

But question arises as to where to draw the line that would respect the separation of rights of a person as a free individual and his duties as a government employee and in particular, as a DFA employee. This paper will try to resolve the conflict among and determine the correlation of the security of information, responsibility of a DFA officer/employee with respect to such information and a person’s right to free speech, all in view of the emergence of various social-networking sites. In other words, this paper aims to identify the social networking factors that affect the ethics of DFA officers/employees, as such.

Other questions as to the necessity of banning social networks, and the effects of government/DFA regulatory measures with respect to social networking will also be discussed.

The Office of Personnel and Administrative Services (OPAS), Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) and the Management Information System (MIS) were made the respondent-offices for this paper, in view of their expertise in human resources, legal affairs and information system, respectively.

I. ADVANTAGES OF SOCIAL NETWORKING TO THE DFA

The Office of Personnel and Administrative Services (OPAS) of the DFA, in its answers to the questionnaire (Annex A) made by the author, views social networking in the following affirmative manner:

“ .…social networking can increase the familiarity of the DFA employees with one another. Good working relations in an office is very important, and relating on matters which are not necessarily work-related allow employees to interact on a more friendly and non-threatening basis. Furthermore, membership in a social networking forum allows employees of the DFA to gain access to valuable information in a very short amount of time, in an almost instantaneous manner.”

Similarly, the Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) positively considers social networking in the following sense:

“.…an employee… can likewise communicate easily with family and friends (who are living in the province or abroad), therefore motivating him to do his best in his duties and functions.

In addition, social networking sites can be used as a tool by the Department in promptly disseminating information to the public. In may be also noted that the use of these sites is widespread in today’s generation and the information disseminated can reach a great number of people.”

According to the Management Information System (MIS) of the DFA:

“The DFA officers and employees can now contact colleagues within the Department, Regional offices and abroad through the chat function of a social network and can exchange work-related issues, resolve problems, and make follow-ups.”

II. AUTHOR’S COMMENTS

The DFA communicates to 67 Philippine Embassies and 4 Philippine Missions stationed outside the country. There are also 23 of Consulates-General, 18 Regional Consular Offices and thousands of international organizations. Social networking is a no-nonsense tool for communication and in bridging wide gaps between posts.

Officers and employees alike are being assigned abroad at a certain time for, usually, six (6) years straight. Unlike social networking, communication by phone is not anymore seen practicable as it is more costly and time-consuming. “Facebooking” and “Tweeting” are cheaper and faster. They save government spending in terms of postage stamps, manpower, and phone bills.

Worth-mentioning is the vast number of other government agencies with which the DFA directly communicates. “Yahoo Messenger” is a very useful tool when phone lines are experiencing traffic. A few clicks away and a DFA employee gets to send files to another government agency and vice versa. Much faster compared to attaching and sending files to emails. This way, productivity increases and time is maximized.

Blogs also come in handy in sharing tips to becoming a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). In fact, Atty. Antonina Mendoza-Oblena, FSO I, has a blogiii where she provides tips and ideas on how to become a DFA officer.

Social networking is also a convenient way to establish and maintain important contacts. Interaction requires less formality thereby speeding up reception of feedback. Ordinarily, snail mails reach addressees in 2-3 days time. But with the chat function of YM and Facebook, and with the express transmission of messages via Twitter, communication has never been made faster.

Generally, social networking is advantageous to communication and establishing set of connections both on short-term and long-term bases.

III. DISADVANTAGES OF SOCIAL NETWORKING TO THE DFA

Inference may be drawn from the viewpoints of OPAS, OLA and MIS, that social networking must not be done at the expense of worktime/office hours. The more time an employee spends on social networking, the less productive he becomes.

According to OPAS, “….social networking, especially that kind which is conducted during office hours, causes employees to become distracted by matters other than work. When this happens, productivity is hampered.”

“….an employee can be so preoccupied with navigating social networking websites resulting in decreased work productivity”, according to OLA.

As per the MIS, “Some are consuming (orig. using) too much time and bandwidth [4] by playing Farmville and other network games.”

When asked to give instances in social networking that are considered unethical for a DFA officer or employee to do on social networks, OPAS gave the following answer:

“Soliciting donations may be considered something unethical… especially during office hours.

“Speaking ill of, spreading rumors or posting misleading information about another colleague may be another… Confidential matters at work should not be discussed in social networking fora…” as by doing so, the national security may be put to risk. “The DFA… is (also) responsible for maintaining the confidentiality of its dealings with other agencies and foreign governments.”

OLA named five (5) instances it considers unethical to be done over social networking sites:

  1. Gossiping;
  2. Hacking;
  3. Threatening others;
  4. Blackmailing; and,
  5. Prioritizing these sites over work.

MIS specifically cited “playing games and watching videos, using the DFA’s internet facility especially during office hours”, as some of the unethical instances.

IV. AUTHOR’S COMMENTS

True it is, time and work productivity have something to do with each other. They are proportionally related. In the DFA, “productivity” may refer to the number of passport applications accepted, or of documents accepted for authentication, or of communications made on a single day. However, internet access is not likely applicable to employees at the Office of Consular Affairs (OCA), where passport applications are accepted and documents authenticated. I used to be with OCA for more than a year and I must say that there is no way for these employees, especially those frontliners, to get access to internet while at work. Their productivity, therefore, may not be correlated with how often they use social networking sites.

However, with respect to geographic offices, [5] ie., those that handle the formulation of Philippine foreign policy in the international forum, the effects of social networking may be easily identified. Almost all officers and employees at these offices work in front of computers/laptops with internet connection. In other words, they have easier and oftener access to the world wide web.

OPAS mentioned “solicitation”. According to Republic Act 6713 [6] (Annex B):

Section 7. Prohibited Acts and Transactions. In additions to acts and omissions of public officials and employees now prescribed in the Constitution and existing laws, the following shall constitute prohibited acts and transactions of nay public official and employee and are hereby declared to be unlawful:

xxx

xxx

d) Solicitation or Acceptance of Gifts. Public officials and employees shall not solicit or accept, directly or indirectly, any gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan or anything of monetary value from any person in the course of their official duties or in connection with any operation being regulated by, or any transaction which may be affected by the functions of their office.

Solicitation is may also be done over social networking sites without realizing its legal consequences. Not only is it unlawful. It is also embarrassing and upsetting for a DFA officer or employee to make public his soliciting over a public-accessible social network.

Since social networking sites are consistent with our freedom of speech, everyone gets the chance to voluntarily make public his personal information. Unlimited it is, but this too much leeway sometimes becomes a means to stain and attack one’s Department’s prestige and stature. Some people use fictional profiles. Some people will make exaggerated or false accusations. Some people will pass along unsubstantiated rumors. [7] There is a potential for failure of security in both personal and business context. While many sites apply certain measures to keep any of these cases of harassment, cyber-stalking, online scams, and identity theft to an absolute minimum, you may still never know. [8]

A news article (Annex C) in The Jakarta Post [9] dated 09/08/2009 had this title: Facebook Forbidden for Government Employees. According to the article, the municipal administration of Surabaya in Indonesia has blocked government employees’ access to top social networking websites Facebook and Friendster and instant messaging Yahoo Messenger, blaming online services for a decline in civil servants’ performance. ….It followed findings that many government employees did nothing but browse the popular websites during office hours.

xxx

The mayor does not prohibit government employees to surf the websites for information or to communicate on the internet, but in order for them to stay focused he decided to block the three websites during work hours.

It is the duty of a public officer and employee, according to Section 7 (c) of the same law, supra, not to use or divulge confidential or classified information officially known to them by reason of their office and not made available to the public, either (1) to further their private interests, or give undue advantage to anyone, or (2) to prejudice the public interest. If confidential information are improperly and unduly disclosed on social networking sites, the OPAS’ recommendation of sanctioning such act may be justified.

OLA enumerated five instances it considers unethical for a DFA officer/employee to do over social networking sites. The author is of the view that said five instances are rightfully and fairly regarded as unethical. All of them are outside the scope of the duties and responsibilities of a public officer and employee. All of them are missing the point of social networking. They definitely blemish the reputation of the person who does them and the Government agency where that person belongs. I know a lot of people from other government agencies and private companies who belong to a particular social networking site. Since everything a person posts online are considered public [10], it is correct to assume that these people I know and the “world”, in fact, are being notified and/or informed of EVERY and ALL posts, whether tarnishing or not.

V. RECOMMENDED MEASURES/POLICIES

With respect to recommended measures/policies to maintain/ heighten the ethical standards for DFA officers/employees in relation to their social networking, the personnel office of the DFA stressed that “as a rule, office hours should be spent for office duties”. It was also recommended reminding DFA employees that “social networking, though it may have its advantages in facilitating employee relations, should, as much as possible, be limited to non-office hours. At the very least, ….should be limited to breaks.” The DFA has one-and-a-half hours break (from 12.00 hrs. to 13.00 hrs.) within which to have lunch and as the employee may choose, to go online for purposes of social networking. According to OPAS, “social networking during office hours may be sanctioned if the inquiries or comments to be made are work-related”.

OLA briefly stated that workshops or lectures on work ethics may include topics on the proper use of the internet particularly limiting the use of these social networking sites for non-work matters.

Compared to OPAS’ and OLA’s recommendations, MIS gave a paradoxically tolerating yet controlled measure, that is, to “utilize social networking to make your job easier, faster, more efficient and enjoyable but avoid playing games during work”.

VI. AUTHOR’S COMMENTS

While it may be true that office hours must be used for official purposes only, it must also be noted that there are official works that may be accomplished, in fact, much faster, with the use of social networking. With due respect to the DFA’s OPAS, I would like to modify the suggestion of limiting the use of social-network sites to office hours only in the sense that the use of these sites must be limited to official purposes during office hours if by doing otherwise, the main purpose of the office will be prejudiced.

Hence, social-networking during office hours, per se, is not prejudicial, provided, it does not wreck the time that is supposed to be consumed for “business”. Social networking must not be outlawed for unfounded fears that it would negatively affect productivity and efficiency at work. Given the fact that online communication is cheaper and faster, it would save the Government a lot of pennies and time. Section 4 of RA 6713 provides:

Section 4. Norms of Conduct of Public Officials and Employees – (A) Every public official and employee shall observe the following as standards of personal conduct in the discharge and execution of official duties:

(a) Commitment to public interest- Public officials and employees shall always uphold the public interest over and above personal interest. All government resources and powers of their respective offices must be employed and used efficiently, effectively, honestly and economically, particularly to avoid wastage in public funds and revenues.

(b) xxx

Posting of inquiries on social networking sites may be sanctioned if and only if these work-related matters are confidential. Otherwise, sanctions would merely curtail the freedom of speech and the right to be informed. It is of each government agency’s administrative office to impose regulatory measures on the use of online communication.

Workshops and lectures, as suggested by OLA, are a good way of reminding DFA officers and employees of their responsible and reasonable accessing people through social networking sites. These must be done at least twice a year. Young employees may not understand the implications of making statements online that reflect poorly on themselves or their employers. They need proper training and clear policies on using such sites. [11]

MIS recognizes the importance of social networking to effectively carry out officers’/employees’ tasks. Nevertheless, at the same time, it recommends that playing games must not be done during work. No tasks can be done perfectly at the same time. It’s either you fail on the former and succeed on the latter, and vice versa.

Similar to the author’s opinion on OPAS’ recommendation, playing games over the internet like Farmville on Facebook, is not per se damaging or injurious. It must be emphasized that it is WHEN exactly an officer or employee does it. If there is too much workload, there is no basis to socialize over the internet to the detriment of the work a person leaves behind. But what if there is no workload during office hours, can a person now comment on someone’s status, tweet, or blog? That question, however, is a question of policy. From the author’s viewpoint, however, he may do so. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. The key to social networking is that it is supposed to be fun, whether a person just does it for kicks or clicking around for business purposes. [12]

VII. CONCLUSION

The following hypotheses were formulated and indicated in the Abstract (Annex D) of this paper:

  1. That there is a correlation between ethics and social networking of DFA officers/employees;
  2. That social networking has an impact on the compliance of DFA officers/employees with the ethical standards set by the Civil Service Commission (CSC) and other related laws;
  3. That the ethics of DFA officers/employees is affected (both in positive and negative ways) by social networking; and that there are more positive than negative effects of social networking; and,
  4. That since, there are more positive effects of social networking, “control” rather than “absolute prohibition” will be resorted to by the DFA when it comes to information management system.

CORRELATION. There is a correlation between the ethics of the DFA officers/employees and social networking. The oftener they socialize online, the more they invoke the guaranteed freedom of speech. The more they respect other people’s opinion. The more they become informed of current events. The more they stay connected with colleagues from other government agencies, and with people from other parts of the world.

And the more they become aware of the implications of social networking, the more prudent they become when it comes to blogging, commenting, and posting.

IMPACT. If the ethics of the DFA officers/employees is affected by social network, so is their compliance with the ethical standards set by the CSC.

POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE EFFECTS. In summary, the positive and negative effects of social networking to the DFA are as follows:

ASPECT POSITIVE EFFECTS NEGATIVE EFFECTS
1) Communication Faster, easier, comes in various forms, informative Intrusion into private and confidential information, hacking, abuse of freedom of speech, publications that reflect poorly on the person and the employer, security issues
2) People-to-People linkages Wider network, establishment of friendship and contacts Anonymity, unreliability
3) Time Fast transmission of messages and information hence, time is maximized; immediate results Time-consuming when spent on too much playing and non-business affairs
4) Financial Cheaper
5) Productivity More active Becomes passive when used excessively
6) Work ethics More active, motivated, flexible, accomplishment of many tasks at almost the same time Lassitude if addicted to social networking sites; can harm social skills as people communicate with people face to face less often
7) Reputation/Image of the Department Positive image results from intelligent and responsible online communication Negative/poor image results from tactless and indiscriminate publications and postings

In a nutshell, too much of anything will not do any good. This conclusion merely affirms the earlier stated viewpoint that social networking is not per se injurious. It is still a constructive tool in communication. As to the DFA, communication is very important. It must not be deprived of access to different social networks for the reason that they are free and public and that they come along with games. The positive effects of social networking still outweigh the negative ones and the latter effects of technology advances may be regulated by law, and administrative policies.

Nothing from the answers of OPAS, OLA and MIS recommend BANNING or TOTAL PHASING OUT of social networks. What was generally recommended was regulation, i.e., scheduled hours for social networking (OPAS), seminars and lectures (OLA) and avoidance of playing games (MIS). These answers are all consistent with the premise stated in number 4 that the DFA would prefer a regulatory measure over an absolute prohibition.

The author gives the following suppositions why banning is not preferred:

  1. Social networking is generally fun.
  2. Social networking is useful.
  3. Social networking is not unethical.

ENDNOTES

[1] Ward Christensen, born in West Bend, Wisconsin, U.S., was the founder of the CBBS bulletin board, the first bulletin board system (BBS) ever brought online. He started development during a blizzard in Chicago, Illinois, and officially established CBBS four weeks later, on February 16, 1978. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Christensen)

[2] http://www.maclife.com/article/feature/complete_history_social_networking_cbbs_twitter

[3] http://kurokuroatbp.com/?page_id=1502

[4] In computer networking and computer science, bandwidth, digital bandwidth, or network bandwidth is a measure of available or consumed data communication resources expressed in bit/s or multiples of it (kbit/s, Mbit/s etc).

[5] e.g., Office of Asian and Pacific Affairs, Office of ASEAN Affairs, United Nations and other International Organizations, Office of European Affairs, Office of American Affairs, Office of Middle East and African Affairs

[6] Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for Public Officials and Employees

[7] http://www.notrain-nogain.org/Train/res/Multi/ethicnet.asp

[8] http://www.everyday-wisdom.com/social-networking.html

[9] http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/09/08/facebook-forbidden-government-employees.html

[10] http://www.notrain-nogain.org/Train/Res/Multi/ethicnet.asp

[11] http://www.omaha.com/article/20100407/MONEY/704079933

[12] http://www.everyday-wisdom.com/social-networking.html

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