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.
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
- 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?
- 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-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.
- 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
- 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:
- 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?
- 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:
- 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?
- 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
- 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?
- 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
Media Governance Policy Database
of Seattle Social Media Policy
Michael Honda Launches Government's First-Ever Crowd-Sourced
This article is based on conversations with local government
officials at the November 2009 meeting of the Government Ethics