Smother Down Under

I haven’t heard much from my friends in Western Australia lately. When I asked about their languishing PACS, I was told, “Not much new. Nothing to see here.” This, of course, piqued my curiosity, but no one had much else to say about PACS, or much of anything else beyond the lovely weather there on the coast of the Indian Ocean.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so it is said, and I sense a vacuum of information. Trolling the internet was not particularly revealing, although I did stumble upon a few tidbits on the official website of the Department of Health from the Government of Western Australia. I have to say that the website is very nicely done, and it is at least a little cleaner and more user-friendly than ours, for example.

Within the WA site, I found the following passages, which strike me as a bit odd. First, we have the “Policy on Use of Official Information and Public Comment” which was released June 8, 2011:

PURPOSE

WA Health employees are not permitted to use official information obtained through the course of their employment to provide public comment or communicate in writing or online without the express authorisation of their Chief Executive Officer. Public comment includes, but is not limited to, verbal comments to the media, written communication such as letters to the media and online communication by email, blogging and posts via social media sites. Unauthorised disclosure of official information is a breach of an employee’s duty of fidelity and good faith which will result in disciplinary action and in some cases termination.

SCOPE

This Policy applies to all employees within WA Health entities including:

  • Department of Health
  • Metropolitan Health Service
  • WA Country Health Service

POLICY

This Policy covers all verbal, written and online communication by employees using official information obtained through the course of their employment. This Policy applies to communication during and outside of work hours.

Part 2 Division 1 Section 9(b) of the Western Australian Public Sector Management Act 1994 (as amended) (the PSM Act) states that all employees of public sector bodies:

“Are to act with integrity in the performance of official duties and are to be scrupulous in the use of official information, equipment and facilities.”
Accordingly, WA Health employees are not to:

  • Release any information made available to them in the course of their duties, or in response to a statutory or legally empowered enquiry, without proper authority.
  • Make use of any information gained in the course of their employment for their personal benefit or gain.
  • Make any statements on official Departmental, Area Health Service or Ministerial letterhead or the internet that conflicts with official policy or legal and administrative precedents.

Further, the PSM Act, Administrative Instruction 278 – Media & Public Communications states:
“Selected public servants may be called on, as part of their official duties, to explain or provide information to the media or the general public on their agencies’ policies and activities. Chief Executive Officers will determine which officers shall be authorised to make public comment.

  1. Those public servants who are empowered to make public comment should confine themselves to providing such information as is necessary to explain government policy or to provide factual, explanatory and background material pertinent to the question at hand.
  1. In doing so, they should avoid making any comment which could undermine public confidence or disrupt the everyday administration of either the Public Service or the Government of the day. To this end, they should:
  • Not give their personal views on matters of government policy or administration, or on advice made to government.
  • Not speculate on future policy directions.
  • Not publicly criticise any political party, its actions or its policies.
  • Not prolong discussion or debate on an issue once a decision has been made, or a policy adopted.

Accordingly, WA Health employees are not permitted to:

  • Disclose official information obtained through the course of their employment to the public through verbal comments to the media, or by written communication such as letters to the media, or online communication by emails, blogging and posts via social media sites, without the express authorisation of the Chief Executive Officer;
  • Disclose official information obtained through the course of their employment to engage in verbal, written or online communication to disparage, discriminate and/or defame WA Health and/or colleagues;
  • Compromise or be perceived to compromise the employee’s ability to carry out his or her duties including the duty of fidelity and good faith.

In addition:

  • When delivering conference papers or discussing issues related to WA Health or on their professional, scientific or technical findings, it is acceptable for staff to use official information that is not confidential. However, in doing so, employees must issue public disclaimers stating that the views are their own and are not necessarily those of the government of the day or WA Health.
  • Relevant Public Relations / Public Affairs areas within the Department of Health or Area Health Services are to be advised of any conference papers or presentations likely to be contentious or which may attract media attention.

CONTACT WITH THE MEDIA:
Generally, public comment to the media is made through the relevant Department of Health or Area Health Service Public Relations / Public Affairs areas. The following should be noted:

  • WA Health employees are not to comment or provide information to the media without proper prior authorisation.
  • Some WA Health employees may be called upon by the Public Relations / Public Affairs area to explain or provide information to the media or to the public on the policies and activities of government.

OTHER POLICY AND LEGISLATIVE OBLIGATIONS:
Prohibited Use of Official Information and Public Comment may also be in contravention of:

  • WA Health Code of Conduct;
  • WA Public Sector Code of Ethics;
  • Public Sector Management Act 1994;
  • WA Health policies, including the Prevention of Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace Policy, Use of Social Media; and
  • Health Services policies, including Confidentiality policies.

…..
Breaches
Any staff member who breaches the provisions of this Policy will be committing an act of misconduct and may be subject to the procedures outlined in the WA Health Misconduct and Discipline Policy, the Public Sector Management Act 1994 or to other action or provisions relevant to the management of conduct.
Kim Snowball
DIRECTOR GENERALDEPARTMENT OF HEALTH WA

And here’s another, the “Policy on Use of Social Media:”

PURPOSE

The purpose of this policy is to ensure that employees do not engage in online communication that is disparaging and/or discriminatory towards the WA Health and/or colleagues. Communication may include, but is not limited to emails, blogging and posts via social media sites such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. Disparaging communication includes negative, adverse, inappropriate, offensive, discriminatory and abusive blogs/posts that criticises WA Health and/or colleagues in a public way.
The use of online communication via social media to post or blog disparaging comments about WA Health and/or colleagues is a breach of an employee’s duty of fidelity and good faith which will result in disciplinary action and in some cases termination of employment.

SCOPE

This policy applies to all staff within WA Health entities including:

  • Department of Health
  • Metropolitan Health Service
  • WA Country Health Service

POLICY

This policy covers all online communication via social media sites made by an employee, whether during work hours on a work computer, or during work hours on a personal electronic device, or outside work hours on a personal electronic device. Online communication via social media sites that is prohibited includes, but is not limited to, communication that:

  • Mentions the WA Health by name, its business operations or confidential information;
  • Is defamatory;
  • May be construed as discriminatory or bullying;
  • Bullies, harasses, discriminates or vilifies work colleagues;
  • Includes abusive status updates and/or blogs that criticise work colleagues, offends others and/or breaches their employment obligations in public ways; and
  • Publicises or comments on workplace disputes.

Prohibited online communication via social media sites may also be in contravention of:

  • WA Health Code of Conduct;
  • WA Public Sector Code of Ethics;
  • Public Sector Management Act 1994;
  • WA Health policies, including the Prevention of Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination in the Workplace Policy, Use of Official Information and Public Comment; and
  • Health Services policies, including Confidentiality policies.

An employee that engages in online communication to make disparaging comments about the Department, management, colleagues and/or patients will be in breach of their duty of fidelity and good faith. Such conduct will be found to be misconduct which will result in disciplinary proceedings and may lead to termination of employment.
Any queries regarding this directive can be sent to industrial.relations@health.wa.gov.au.

Kim Snowball
DIRECTOR GENERAL
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH WA

Well, I think the message is pretty clear, and I have to wonder if my foray into investigative journalism from last year had anything to do with these policy revisions. Anyone taking bets?

My first thought when reading these policies, which are posted right there on the internet for all to see, was, “What about Free Speech????” As it turns out, Oz has some different rules about that than we do here in the States. From the Wiki:

Australia does not have explicit freedom of speech in any constitutional or statutory declaration of rights, with the exception of political speech which is protected from criminal prosecution at common law per Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth.

In 1992 the High Court of Australia judged in the case of Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth that the Australian Constitution, by providing for a system of representative and responsible government, implied the protection of political communication as an essential element of that system. This freedom of political communication is not a broad freedom of speech as in other countries, but rather a freedom whose purpose is only to protect political free speech. This freedom of political free speech is a shield against government prosecution, not a shield against private prosecution (civil law). It is also less a causal mechanism in itself, rather than simply a boundary which can be adjudged to be breached. Despite the court’s ruling, however, not all political speech appears to be protected in Australia and several laws criminalise forms of speech that would be protected in other democratic countries such as the United States.

In other words, Western Australia’s policies are perfectly legitimate and enforceable, although rather surprising for a nation which prides itself on being cantankerous and disrespecting authority. It therefore seems unlikely that I will ever hear much more about PACS or any other trouble that might possibly disparage the WA government.

Fortunately, there seems to be no proviso to punish the recipient of such information, especially a foreign national such as myself, so hopefully, I’m still allowed to travel to Australia.  I would be devastated if they took that privilege away.

In the meantime, I guess it’s up to Crikey to find out if anything is going down Down Under.

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One response to “Smother Down Under

  1. That's because Western Australian radiologists and staff now have MUCH bigger problems than a rubbish PACS.

    If you ever meet one at a meeting overseas, please ask them about the unstoppable “widely transparent and supported” progression of IMAGING WEST.

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