What are federal employees allowed to do in a non-official capacity when using social media?
Over the years I've had the opportunity to read, write, talk and listen to a lot of experts and I still don't think there's a one-size-fits-all solution. However, these are the general principles I follow.
Please note - it's not only about the letter of the law but the spirit -- and often it involves a judgment call. When I am not sure, I ask questions.
All that said, here is some personal, informal advice.
- On the profile and in the blog, as warranted, note: "all opinions my own." That said, be real, be yourself, but avoid seeming too edgy or extreme.
- You are allowed to be a human being. Human beings have lives, have experiences, move through the world, and experience things. We have opinions and we disagree. You do not have to be afraid to be human and also be online. You just have to be mindful of what you are doing, and who is watching, as any reasonable person would.
- Generalize experiences and do not refer to specific instances or individuals. It's fine to say that meetings are boring for example. But do not refer to that specific gathering on that specific day at that specific time in that specific room with that specific department. Led by that specific person.
- When you say what you think or feel, it's fine to be honest, but it's important to be respectful too. You hold a position of public trust. Ask yourself, if someone took these words and printed them in the newspaper, would most people question my ability to serve?
- Do not imply that the agency endorses your views, or a particular product or service. Of course you can say what your opinions are. But you can't make it seem like they have the backing of Uncle Sam.
- Humor is great but something to be handled with kid gloves. You do not want to seem hateful, attacking, divisive, racist, sexist, and so on (hopefully you are not these things, either). It is the nature of a joke that it will often be politically incorrect. That's why jokes, especially politically incorrect jokes, are often a bad idea. This doesn't mean you have to be "heavy" all the time. It is OK to be yourself, to lighten up every now and then. Just understand the potential impact of your words.
- Observe the Hatch Act carefully - here are some FAQ on the subject. While it's true that you can hold any views you want and express them on your personal time and in your personal space, it's important to be mindful of the impact of social media on those who know you and who work with you. I do not like to get into political discussions on Facebook.
- Focus on objectively advancing knowledge, best practice, community. Look for points of commonality. Try to reach across the boundaries of government, private sector, academia. There are many controversies, many issues to be hashed out, and you can contribute to all these discussions. Federal employees are generally extremely well-educated and articulate. This is where we shine.
- Don't discuss the specifics of your day-to-day work. I know it is possible for the agency to be comfortable with this. I personally do not think it's a good idea. To my mind, it interferes with operations. Similarly, don't try to explain the agency's policies, programs or procedures; don't take a position on what the agency does or does not do. Again, you run the risk of interfering with operations and you also might share information that is not already public.
- It's fine to "like" Facebook announcement, retweet Tweets, or share public announcements, especially if encouraged to do so. Sometimes there are articles that cover the agency, and if they're very thoughtful or useful I think it's OK to share those too.
The following references may also be helpful:
*Note: This blog represents an informal collection of personal practices and is not a substitute for professional advice. All opinions, as always are my own.