Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Web 1 and 2: Ethical Issues for Government Officials

The purpose of all government communication is to encourage an "engaged citizenry." How can new communications technologies be used most effectively to accomplish this? Currently, the debate is over Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and e-newsletters, but the particular medium will change over time. We must develop principles that can guide us on whatever platform develops in the future.

Access

As a first principle in government ethics, all people are supposed to have equal access to the ear of government officials. New media can improve the access of citizens to their representatives by increasing the number and variety of channels of communication. However, these media can also restrict access or favor certain constituencies.
  1. Can a government official use Facebook as a way to discuss public issues? If so, can he or she limit access to the page in any way? Doesn't that interfere with open communications? If the Facebook page is personal, must the official confine all comments to personal rather than public matters? How much control does the Facebook user have over what others post on his or her wall?
  2. Should the city council permit the use of devices such as Blackberries, IPhones, or laptops during meetings? Practices vary, but some councils and boards require members and audience to turn off their devices. Do private texting, tweeting, etc. distract officials from the business at hand? Would private communications such as these be allowed in person, with individuals approaching the dais to speak with members during the meeting? A problem in permitting such activity electronically is the public perception that some individuals may have special access to officials during deliberations. Also, those officials with devices may have access to information (e.g. Google maps during a zoning debate) that other officials do not have.

Transparency

Transparency-the ability of citizens to see what their government is doing-promotes accountability. To ensure transparency, all states have regulations requiring open meetings (the Brown Act in California) and free access to government records. New technologies can increase transparency-Webcasts of council or board meetings, regular e-newsletters for constituents, online dialogue on current issues before council. Technology can also provide the vehicle for "secret" communications or meetings.
  1. Open Meetings: If a quorum of councilmembers comment on an issue on someone's Facebook page or other social network, this may violate open meeting laws, which prohibit private meetings on public business outside of council chambers. Also, social media are easy to misuse for "daisy chaining," the practice whereby members try to create consensus in advance of a public decision by making a series of contacts to individuals. Daisy chaining constitutes a meeting under many open meeting laws. This may be inadvertent on Facebook or in the comments on a blog, if council members serially leave comments on an issue that is before them.
  2. Open Records: By law, government records are public. Can a member direct emails about City business to his or her private email? How do you police this? Do private e-mails sent during a public meeting (eg, a text message to remind children to do their homework) become part of the public record? Are blogs or Facebook pages maintained by councilmembers part of the public record? The media and the various watchdog organizations assert that they have a right to see all communications with a councilmember - whether to his or her official email OR to a private email. How do you capture this information?

Public Resources; Private Purposes

Generally, public resources must be used for public purposes. An engaged citizenry is a public purpose, and electronic communications, social media, and the Internet are good tools to foster that purpose. For example, many officials have replaced the old constituent newsletter with e-newsletters, which also are more ecologically friendly. Potential problem areas include:
  1. Using official government Web resources to promote a campaign: What do you do when a councilmember uses his official Web page to promote all of his or her accomplishments - so it becomes more like a campaign Web site? Should a councilmember be allowed to link from his or her city Web page to a campaign site? Does becoming a fan of campaign page constitute an endorsement?
  2. Using official government resources to promote a business: Can a councilmember promote his or her private business interests on an official city Web page? On a private Web page linked to the official City Web page? Is this similar to the old proscription against using official city stationary to conduct private business? Can an official use his or her government title in a privately produced YouTube video or other online medium, either promoting a business or a campaign?

Free Speech With an Amplifier

Easy to use blog sites, e-mail listservs, YouTube, and other new media are giving individuals a megaphone to promote their views. This was the original ideal behind the Internet-that it would promote democracy by allowing everyone to have a voice. But these media can also be abused:
  1. Should public officials have their own blogs? Should they be commenting publicly on matters about which the council has not yet held public meetings? Doesn't that suggest that they've made a decision in advance of hearing all the public input?
  2. Should city employees be allowed to have blogs in which they comment on city business, perhaps criticizing city policies or decisions? Can individual councilmembers or employees put a critique of agency policy on YouTube? Is this their free speech right?
  3. Independent blogs can be a powerful instrument of public opinion, especially with the contraction of newspapers and especially in smaller communities where they may be one of the only sources of information on local affairs. But what if a blogger spreads misinformation? What if a blogger offers better coverage to officials who advertise in or contribute to his or her blog than to those who do not?
  4. How can a councilmember manage the "swarm effect" of online commentary and influence? When it is so easy for interest groups to reach public officials with prefabricated e-mails, how can an official determine whether such a swarm represents broad public opinion within his or district or even comes from constituents?
Useful Links
Social Media Governance Policy Database

City of Seattle Social Media Policy

Rep Michael Honda Launches Government's First-Ever Crowd-Sourced Website

This article is based on conversations with local government officials at the November 2009 meeting of the Government Ethics Roundtable.


New Materials

Center News