Technology, Social Media and the Public Employee

By Ted Hirt
Reliance on technology, including social media, will accelerate over time

Reliance on technology, including social media, will accelerate over time

The government increasingly relies on modern technology in order to communicate policies and activities and to elicit comments or “feedback” on agency initiatives and past performance. Agency websites and social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.) can provide rapid sharing of information and can enable individuals and groups to interact more effectively with agency staff, the public and decision makers. And the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent closure of government offices necessitate more reliance on teleworking, a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Certainly, reliance on technology, including social media, will accelerate over time. But the broad appeal and widespread use of these communications platforms have created difficult challenges for agencies as well as for other employers.

What are the challenges posed by the public employee’s use of communications technology such as social media? First, the pervasive use of that media implicates substantial concerns as to the security of electronically stored agency information (ESI) and the risk of the disclosure — intentionally or by accident — of private or confidential information in the agency’s custody. Agencies must respond to that challenge proactively. Second, an agency employer needs to prescribe, and implement, clear policies for employees and contractors regarding the authorized use of devices that access social media platforms. Otherwise there will be a substantial risk of intentional or accidental misuse of those platforms. Third, agencies must consider how the use of social media for employment-related communications may affect the agency’s reputational interests and its potential legal liabilities. In this regard, public employees must understand how they should use social media — whether on the job or off the job — when they communicate about the agency’s activities or events in their daily lives.

This article explores these complex topics and provides several recommendations for the appropriate use of social media and other internet-based technologies in the public employer setting.

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