Behind the blog: what’s in a name?

Author: 
Jacinta - Web Guide Team
Category: 
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In 2008, the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) hosted a two week trial blog seeking consultation on “thoughts and ideas about the digital economy”.  Over the two weeks ten posts were made, either by a ‘blog team’ or the Minister.  The blog attracted over 1500 comments, with a number raising the issue that blogs were supposed to be conversations with individuals and not with a ‘blog team’. Which brings us to an interesting issue.  Who should author a blog post? A team? A person? If it is the latter, should they identify themselves fully?

The Privacy Commissioner’s privacy guidelines tell us:

The staff of Federal Government agencies are entitled to the same protection, afforded by the Privacy Act, as agency clients. However, IPP10.1(e) allows the publication of personal information if this is directly related to the purpose for which the information was obtained. The web publication of information about certain staff such as the agency head, senior officers and contact or media officers may be directly related to the purpose for which the information was obtained and therefore permitted by IPP10.1(e). IPP11 would permit disclosure of such details where the individual concerned is reasonably likely to have been aware, or made aware under Principle 2, that their personal information would be disclosed widely (see IPP11.1(a)). Staff in senior positions, or positions of public contact, would normally expect their contact details to be publicly available in some form. These staff members should be advised if their personal information is to [be] published on the web.

Which is interesting. A blog could be written by staff in a senior position or a person in a position of public contact, in which case the privacy guidelines are clear. As a case in point, any posts written by our Branch Manager are acknowledged as such.  But posts might also be written (as is the case with this blog) by other public servants not in senior positions.

Those with service delivery experience will understand the concerns about releasing their full name (such as the potential for customers to attempt to contact staff inappropriately).

The protocols for online media participation for public servants include the following requirements:

  • behaving with respect and courtesy, and without harassment
  • dealing appropriately with information, recognising that some information needs to remain confidential
  • upholding the APS Values and the integrity and good reputation of the APS.

Which brings us back to the blog environment. Most professional blogs are not authored by pseudonymous or anonymous teams. But in terms of public servant bloggers, there is the risk that an individual would receive undue attention simply for relaying Government policy and organisational decisions. Our thinking on this isn’t a reflection on the readers of this blog by any means - we’re examining the issue more broadly than that.

Originally, posts on this blog were authored by the ‘WPG Review team’. After some consideration of the issues above and discussion among the team, we decided to change that. The middle ground we’ve taken through all of these issues is to have blog posts and comments signed with the first name of the author – which helps get around the ‘Faceless Bureaucrat’ issue and hopefully increases the effectiveness of the blog as an exercise in online engagement.

We’re curious about your thoughts on the issue – let us know below.

Comments (8)

I do agree with the thrust of the approach. However, I think it is important to distinguish between public servants making a comment that does not reflect any official view - i.e. As individuals who happen to be public servants - as opposed to comments being made in an official capacity. This is something that needs to be said upfront.

I do not think whether the comments is being made officially or not makes any difference as what we need to do is treat the blog space the same - for ourselves and in terms of how we expect EVERYONE to behave. So if, for example, I was running an external blog here and a response was abusive etc I would simply ban that person.

So I would say generally first name (but leave that to the individual), but if posts are made in an official capacity first and last name - title if warranted and that provision be made for people who have concerns/issues of a personal nature to have access to an email link for that purpose.

So all in all it is about good management and making our standards and expectations clear about behaviour in the public sector and community space that is emerging.

Feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss.

Steve Davies

Hi Jacinta,

Our policy with yourHealth (www.yourhealth.gov.au) was to use the first name of the author of the post, except where their first name was sufficiently distinctive so as to create a privacy concern in the view of the department and the author.

We would resolve this concern by using a consistent pseudonym (screen name) for the individual and note that a screenname was in use for personal privacy reasons. Note we did not need to put this into practice at the time.

It is also important to look beyond the blog post itself to the wider web presence of individuals.

If the intent is to avoid revealing certain personal details about the author of a blog post, there needs to be consideration as to whether the author can rapidly be matched to their personal profile on social networks, either from first name and place of work alone or if they promote the post via any of their personal online channels.

If the concern is that a person's full name would be revealed then it may not be possible for the author to link to their post from, for example, their Facebook or MySpace profile, Twitter account or personal blog simply due to how easy it is to match data via a web search.

Departments can take steps to mitigate this risk by establishing their own official online communications channels which do not identify authors in this manner (such as my Department's @yourHealthgovau Twitter account).

However this will never be a perfect system in our current internet environment - Departments and their staff have to accept that anyone may become personally identifiable online over time through no fault of their own and beyond the control of any government agency.

Individuals may be identified by others (deliberately or accidentally) even if they are not personally and professionally active online. I've seen this happen to contact centre staff where they get mentioned in online forums by first name and location and are tracked down through phone books and search engines by cooperating groups on these forums.

Having friends put comments about you online, sometimes with photos, is also a common source of identification, as are media reports and even via placement announcements in the APS Employment Gazette (which contains initial and surname, department, office location, APS level and number - enough to begin searching for someone in phone books and sports club notices).

Not having a social networking presence doesn't mean that you are invisible online.

Where people are active online, the cumulative store of online information about an individual's personal and professional activities may, over time, lead to easy identification. It only takes one comment (indexed forever in search engines) to connect the dots between personal and professional identities.

Cheers,

Craig

Hi Craig and Jacinta

You have both raised some interesting insights about privacy concerns.

I can quite see why staff in government organizations would want to protect their privacy and have concerns about being inappropriately contacted. This is a choice to be made and a difficult policy matter.

Those in senior positions normally make their details available on websites. One example is the ACCC and AER who transparently allow direct contact with senior staff by providing an e-mail address with a full name and then @(gov department).

In the context of endeavouring to contact a government agency directly about a concern, this is important even if the number of names made available is restricted.

It is my experience that material sent to a generic address may not always be swiftly processed and may travel along a number of pathways before reaching the appropriate party, if at all.

There is always a price to pay when in a senior position, and contact details are usually trackable one way or another.

In the context of a blog, whilst it is OK with me to write to the Gov2 Team for example, I do like to be able to identify the person to whom I am responding, but respect that not everyone wants to be identified. Consistency in the use of a screen name is the least expectation in a blog context.

In terms of privacy, Craig makes a good point that if someone wants to track another party down, regardless of whether they have actively participated online or made details available, it will happen anyway.

I have found in the past when using a screen name for certain purposes, such as perhaps responding to an online news article and wishing to preserve some privacy, that it is impossible anyway to protect my identity since the next time I may search for my own name I find that both my screen name and real identify are published together online without any input or request from me.

In general terms as a private individual, it is my usual policy when blogging, making submissions or dialogue with a public purpose or duty in mind, I have a preference for full identification of my name, and as may have been noticed in all my blogs I generally publish my full name, first and surname and take direct ownership of my personal opinions, criticisms or enquiries. It is a transparent way to dialogue and I have never had any difficulty with ownership and identification on or offline.

When participating in an arena such as this I encouarge dialogue and if someone wishes to contact me directly to discuss a matter or seek clarification I have no objection. This is one of the reasons that I leave my full name, email and landline phone number on all my public submissions and over-ride normal policy to protect individuals from this type of exposure.

This expressly to discuss further dialogue if people wish to undertake this outside the consultative process or even during.

I have not found myself in any way taken for granted nor have I felt in that context that my own privacy has been abused by those having access to my details.

Spam I take for granted as a fact of life and take steps to deal with this where possible. If one is active online, there are always some privacy risks.

I can understand the perspective of staff in government organizations who would prefer not to be badgered by the public and certainly Jacinta's point is valid and a policy decision has to be made as to what is most appropriate taking into account the views of those who are blogging online on behalf of Government.

Personally I appreciate the openness of Gov2's Chair Nicholas Gruen, who always uses his own name and is even willing to post his image online against his name from time to time to personalize his message.

The cyber world gives few opportunities for people to put names to faces and the concept of "The Faceless Bureaucrat" as so eloquently discussed in Mia Garlick's wordless article to which I made several response and references in other Gov2 blogs. Please would the Team pass on my congratulations to the designer who was responsible for the gripping image of the Faceless Bureaucrat - one that I visit quite regularly just to take in the quality of the image and the powerful message it conveys. I love it.

Forming meaningful relationships with the public is an important aspect of the Gov2 dialogue. In my view identification goes a long way to assisting to cement those relationships and from a personal perspective helps to enforce the concept of transparency generally.

Not sure that any of this helps Gov2 and other government agencies to decide what to do about identification of their owns staff - that is one for internal decision in weighing up the pros and cons in evaluating what represents an acceptable privacy risk.

Concepts of privacy are indeed very personal issues.

Thanks for posting a sidebar link to attr4act my attention in order that I could make a contribution to this discussion

Cheers

Madeleine

Individual newcomer stakeholder

Ooops Steve

I am so sorry I left your comments out in my post above.

Each of you has raised really important points and I have given top rating to all viewpoints as there is validity in each.

May I add that I entirely agree that if an official response is being made - both names should be identified as pseudonyms frowned upon.

I am very much a newcomer here but am getting to learn a bit about people's views' no matter what name they chose to use. Consistency is important so there should be a rule about using the same name and not changing this regularly so that continuity is lost in identifying whose views are owned by whom.

I am still with the ownership thing - my personal philosophy is that if a comment about public services is worth saying it is worth owning.

I do also see difficulties that individuals working for government may face with disclosure and this is no doubt a sensitive issue that needs to be nutted out internally.

Finally, I do believe that personalizing a response has many merits and creates a sense of community amongst bloggers however discrepant their individual views.

Cheers

Madeleine

Individual newcomer stakeholder

Hi Steve, Craig, Madeleine – you’ve raised some interesting issues. Something else which wasn’t in Jacinta’s post, but which your comments reminded me of, was the question of teams who run blogs.

What happens when a team member puts up a post under their own name, but then for whatever reason isn’t available to respond to comments? There could be any number of reasons for this: changing jobs, illness, training, leave, etc. Some of these we can anticipate in advance, but others we can’t – that’s life. Do you think the quality of the online engagement goes down if a team member other than the original blogger comes back to answer comments?

@Steve - your point about public servants in their roles as individuals or in their official capacity is a good one and brings in both Craig’s and Madeleine question about the wider nature of online names and the way the internet presents the ability to discover linked identities. I think the wider question is one of risk management – what level of risk does this new piece of identity add to the total?

@Craig – picking up on Mark’s point about the nature of teams and given your experience in yourhealth.gov.au, did you encounter members of the public building relationships with individuals? Did you feel there was more credibility / trust between individuals or was it the case that when one author was not available, another would be able to help out?

@ Madeleine – Your point about those in senior roles is interesting. One of the things we noted in research for another area of the site was that the Australian Government directory only publishes to the SES level, but doesn’t publish team or hotline address. For our purposes, team and hotlines were just what we needed, but there doesn’t seem to be the same focus as on the senior managers.

Jacinta

Thanks for your feedback.

I like to personalize all my messages on or offline.

Mostly I undertake direct email targetting and am reasonable familiar with the specific Government sites that I regularly write to either in the course of formal consultative dialogue or by individual email targetting.

When exploring a Government site I rally like to know what the whole hierarchical tree is, who I am addressing, and even where appropriate in the context of say lobbying, what their published backgrounds are if they have that sort of profile.

Openness and accessibility are important issues even at the level of providing general contact information on the pages of any government site. Some are better managed than others; some publish staff directories, and others simply a generic enquiry line.

In some arenas I have found the customer service general enquiry lines to be fiercely protective of staff at any level, even describing policies that do not encourage direct email or telephone communication.

This to be is going backwards with accessibility.

I am sure there are concerns about inappropriate contact with individual staff.

However, for my purposes I am always aiming to target specific staff involved in a matter with the most familiarity and do not always choose to go to high levels.

I do find it very unsatisfactory to write to generic email addresses for specific issues and expect no more normally than a generic auto-generated response.

I often never find out whether the targetted staff member, senior or otherwise has ever received or read the material.

Cheers

Madeleine

Citizen Stakeholder

mkin2711@bigpond.net.au

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Last updated: 27 July 2016