Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Drum Piece –Movies and Pirates – and the APSC’s new Guidelines for Being a Public Servant on Social Media

My Drum piece today is on how the film industry keeps making crap and treats consumers like crap and then wonders why box office revenue is falling… oh yeah “it’s the pirates”.

The piece has a few graphs (but of course), but I didn’t have space to put in are I think quite instructive, which are posted below.

By the way long time readers – yes, you three – will know this has been a bit of a hobby horse of mine. I am a bit of a nut for box office data because, well I love data and I love film, so it’s kind of a perfect match. It all started because when I wrote my PhD thesis on satires of Hollywood I wrote this one sentence:

Thus even the once examined total gross figure has been replaced by a short term figure (opening weekend); one that reflects more the ability of the studio’s marketing department than the film’s artistic quality, or popularity.

It sounded good, but I realised I needed to be able to prove it or I had to cut it (such is the life of a PhD student). And so I spent the next week gathering the box office data on every film that had opened in America since 1981, did a few statistical things, made a lot of graphs, and then wrote a footnote. One week’s work to prove one sentence and to produce one footnote. Such fun.

Anyhoo here are the graphs.

The first shows the number of films each year in America that reach number 1 at the box office:


The more films that reach this indicate more “blockbusters” and less time each film (including poor little Australian ones) to achieve success in the cinemas.

The other one is a comparison of the percentage of films released each year with an “R” rating (effectively like Australia's “M”) and also what percentage such films account for in Total Box Office:


Even up till the late 1990s R rated films accounted for half of all releases; now they’re down to 30 per cent. If you think there are less movies aimed towards adults, you are right.


The other thing of note is today in the Canberra Times, Markus Mannhein writes about new guidelines introduced by the Australian Public Service Commission for public servants and use of social media out of work. The new guidelines include provisions which Mannheim writes have been dubbed “The Jericho Amendments” (as one on Twitter has suggested, that sounds like the next John Grisham novel).Now firstly, this will be covered in my book on social media that I am currently writing (so thanks APSC for the need to write a new section) and so I will hold most of my thoughts for that (also I’ve thought about this for about an hour so it’s not fully developed).

The news guidelines do include some good advice about commenting anonymously online – advice in fact that I lived by when I wrote under a pseudonym.

But then they also contain these “principles”":

Making public comment in an unofficial capacity—general principles

When APS employees are making public comment in an unofficial capacity, it is not appropriate for them to make comment that is, or could be perceived to be:

  • being made on behalf of their agency or the Government, rather than an expression of a personal view
  • compromising the  APS employee’s capacity to fulfil their duties in an unbiased manner. This applies particularly where comment is made about policies and programmes of the employee’s agency
  • so harsh or extreme in its criticism of the Government, a member of parliament from another political party, or their respective policies, that it raises questions about the APS employee’s capacity to work professionally, efficiently or impartially. Such comment does not have to relate to the employee’s area of work
  • so strong in its criticism of an agency’s administration that it could seriously disrupt the workplace. APS employees are encouraged instead to resolve concerns by informal discussion with a manager or by using internal dispute resolution mechanisms, including the APS whistleblowing scheme if appropriate
  • a gratuitous personal attack that might reasonably be perceived to be connected with their employment
  • unreasonable criticism of an agency’s clients and other stakeholders
  • compromising public confidence in the agency or the APS.

The first point is fine; the second is OKish, but can be subject to a wide view – you are always going to be in trouble if you start commenting on policies that you are working on. I wrote a couple times about the insulation scheme which was being run in the Dept of Environment, of which Arts was within (but completely separate from) and I commented on the program’s media coverage and response by the opposition rather than the policy itself. As a rule though I steered clear of the Department.

The third point though is utterly stupid. It is written by someone who does not understand social media, and bizarrely has no concept of what public service work is all about. It is written like the public service is a company. My work in the public service rarely had anything to do with politics or policy which was controversial. I first worked for the Howard Government, and thought as a whole his government was terrible – but I liked the policy/programs on which I worked and did my best to ensure they were implemented or advocated. This is actually how it often is. You think things the Govt does as a whole are dopey but you like your own area. Even if you think your own area’s policy is dopey you do it, and you don’t comment publicly that you think it is dopey. Like most workers in Australia you just complain about it over coffee at morning tea.

Pretty reasonable.

But now we have “Such comment does not have to relate to the employee’s area of work”. Which potentially means every Government policy, and because Government policy covers much of life that will mean that as well – pokies, internet filtering, gay marriage, media regulation, climate change…

We also have “so harsh or extreme”.

What is “so harsh or extreme”? Who defines this? In my experience all this will do is encourage trolls on the net to go looking for public servants on Twitter and threaten their jobs if they make any political statements. It will also encourage lazy “journalists” who are seeking a bit of kudos from their bosses in any lame anti-social media fight they wish to wage to go hunting for public servants as well.  The worst James Massola could come up with was me writing:

Greg Hunt "could write a PhD thesis on environmental political cowardice."

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is "the master of spin" and, on the Rooty Hill leader's forum, "because it wasn't a debate Abbott was able to get away with an inordinate amount of bullshit".

Is that really harsh or extreme?

And as for writing about my own Dept again here’s the best Massola could find to damn me with:

"Garrett was demoted for no good reason" and that ". . . Garrett has been demoted, despite no-one in the media or the opposition actually being able to explain just exactly with any level of intelligence what he did wrong, he was deemed to have 'bungled'."

Not exactly policy specific – and also quite impartial because I was actually attacking the opposition and media for failing to show any intelligent reason why Garrett should be demoted and Rudd for demoting him!

But ahh such joys you can have debating such things – and if you are a public servant you are more likely to be debating them with your boss.

The guidelines won’t actually affect one bit how any public servant does their job; it will just mean people’s lives will be made hell for periods while the media or trolls (or both, as they can at times be indistinguishable) turn their attention on them. And then those public servants will probably create a new pseudonymous Twitter account and lock it.

The last four points are either so obvious or dumb as could only be written by a public servant. I’d like them to find one Tweet or blog post that could “seriously disrupt the workplace”. The only way that could happen that would not have previously been covered by the code of conduct is if media attention on a workplace occurred because of the third point. So in effect these guidelines will cause the disruption; not the social media comments.

The rest are points that are obvious from any reading of the APS code of conduct, but only serve to murky the waters for example “gratuitous attack connected with their employment”. Is that someone who works for Centrelink or the Dept of Agriculture tweeting that Gillard’s policy on asylum seekers shows her to be absolutely soulless? Or someone writing that her not being in favour of gay marriage is a cruel act that smacks of homophobia? Probably not, but with these guidelines I wouldn’t make a habit of such tweets because they may get the attention of someone who thinks it’s fun and games to start sending off emails to the Secretary of your Department in the hope of having you sacked. (And believe me, such people exist.)

The thing about the APSC is in that not once in entire time since I have gone through what pretty much everyone acknowledges was a first for a public servant in Australia have they contacted me to seek any input on social media policy. It nicely ironic that “the Jericho Amendments” had no input from this Jericho.

Want to know how pathetic the APSC is when it comes to social media – take a look at their Facebook page. They have no idea what social media is or how it operates.

The public service is constantly being encouraged to be less worried about risk in order to free up bureaucratic process and to embrace social media. These guidelines are contrary to that.

Dumb move APSC.

Not surprising, though.


Anonymous said...

Hey Grog's an interesting data set that I thought of when reading through your piece.

Greg Jericho said...

Cheers anon. That is great.

Nick said...

One or two thoughts, Greg.

Pedantically, the MPAA (US) 'R' rating is more approximate to the Australian MA15+ rating, whereas the Australian 'M' rating is more approximate to the MPAA's 'PG-13' rating.

Following on from that, the MPAA is accused of 'ratings creep', particularly in terms of violent content; by this, the MPAA is accused of allowing increasing levels of 'R' rated / adult violence into the PG-13 releases. This includes sequels of R-rated franchises, such as Terminator Salvation and Die Hard 4 (parallel to this argument is that the levels of sex and profanity are edited down to accommodate the PG-13 rating).

In this sense there is some degree of compromise in modifying 'adult' films for a broader audience as a PG13 is seen as more commercially viable (and also there is, arguably, an increase in 'extreme' content in MPAA R rated films; if it's got to be an R rated film, make it a hard-R, says the studios... more SAW and Hostel please, they'd say).

Ultimately this supports your argument about the studios peddling crap; the acceptability of more adult violence in PG13 may be part of a feedback loop on the major studios pressing on the MPAA (of which they are all members) for more acceptability of adult violence in PG13 so they can peddle crap and so on...

Another important factor in the discussion of film studios is they're (badly) competing with the premium content is being provided for by cable TV (HBO and AMC with Game of Thrones / Mad Men / Breaking Bad / The Wire...) and the studios are reacting by releasing "tent pole" blockbusters rather than competitive premium conduct.

Although prima facie this seems to be a self-fulling downward spiral, I'd suggest that - at the risk of sounding too technologically deterministic - that the medium is of as much importance as the message in this instance. Cable TV is providing high quality content that people are willing to pay for; culture of expectation (and willingness to pay for) high quality content in the luxury of ones own home with increasingly cheap high quality entertainment equipment.

And the turnaround for films to be on VOD and DVD is so quick, perhaps more audiences are waiting.

I'd love to get more demographic details and data to back this up, so it's largely an untested theory rather than a positive statement, but I imagine that the peddling of crap has deep technological and economic basis that even SOPA at it's most draconian couldn't address. Perhaps there's demographic correlations between those who have cable tv and don't go to cinemas, and those who don't have cable tv and do go to cinemas. (This runs the risk of 'elitist' normative views).

Even without the internet (and the allegedly rampant pirates) these changes would be underway.

Stephen Collins said...

The new APSC guidelines are pretty dire. Given the recent exodus of smart, social media and communications-savvy people from the APS, it appears there was some sense of what was coming given the apparent stagnation of any open government activity.

For mine, I'm glad to be back outside the APS.

Greg Jericho said...


You are right re the changing nature of the ratings. I wrote about that exact thing back in Jan 2009. (I should have linked to it in the post)

Anonymous said...

did you mean to say 'less risk averse'?

Nick said...

Certainly I was not one of the three originals then ;)

Thanks for the link. Great piece, as was today's (praise that should have been in my original comment).

Anonymous said...

Reading between the lines the not so thinly disguised sentiment is that senior PS managers would really prefer PS employees not to express any political opinions.

In a context where the public service has been rendered only one among many sources of advice to politicians, the last thing a Secretary would want is their Minister being aware of people working in that Department who are publicly critical of the Government of the day. Such knowledge merely gives the politician (and their advisers) one more reason to go elsewhere. And would certainly reduce their willingness to seek advice from their Departments on options that may be politically sensitive.

The reality is that public servants who are politically active or express political views have only ever really been reluctantly tolerated - and that was in an era when the expression of political views was unlikely to spread much beyond the half a dozen people who might have attended a branch or union meeting.

Now that social media can propel views much more broadly in real time, I suspect that the reluctant tolerance will rapidly evolve into more overt hostility.

The latest circular will provide the required cover for this hostility.

Greg Jericho said...

I think you may be right, Anon.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that the reasons given by Anon #1 are quite right.

What has happened to the APS is that it is now seen as being an organisation at the beck and call and whim of the Minister and expected to fully back the Minister/government's politicial position (witness the twists and obfuscation by APS bigwigs in Senate Estimates not to say 'this is a stupid policy, I cannot defend it').

The Code of Conduct extrapolates from this and says that you, as a public servant, must not in any way show any dissent or disagreement with the political decisions of the day. Heaven forbid that a Minister gets confronted with a question such as 'Minister, why has someone in your department disagreed with a policy of the government?' (albeit a policy of another Minister/department).

Instead, the APS is there to support and serve the Minister in all things. Including not criticising.

Oddly I can't remember any APS employees getting into trouble for social media use - surely the heavy handed knocking on cubicle walls (there being no doors in the APS) by the police during alleged whistleblower / leak investigations (depending on your viewpoint) has frightened any thinking APS person into a shell. So I'm not quite sure there was any need to update the policy, or be particularly heavy handed about it.

That said, at least in theory moderate and reasoned comment should be ok.

Megpie71 said...

Reading through the lovely little guidelines, what I'm seeing is basically a set of instructions to public servants that they aren't allowed to voice any kind of dissenting opinion about government policy or procedure in any medium, at any place, at any time. Or in other words, if you're a public servant, your job is to do your job, and then shut up about it, both in public and in private.

So as a public servant, one isn't allowed to simultaneously exist as a private citizen. How nice.

Craig Thomler said...

Hi Greg,

I've also never been asked by the APSC directly to comment on draft social media policies in Government.

However I have provided input as a departmental officer.

I do wonder sometimes who actually does get consulted or advise them on the details.

Greg Jericho said...


If they're not getting direct input from you, then they just wasted a resource that the APS did have.

Stephen Sedgwick (APSC commissioner) on 666 this afternoon said the APSC has a Twitter account. All I could find was the APSC Grad info one. If they do have one, they're not using it very well...

Oliver Townshend said...

I doubt the department put up that Facebook page, it looks like Facebook did it, as the narrative is from Wikipedia.

Anonymous said...

I spent a really really long time working in the Federal Public Circus (for one of the Government agencies you mentioned) and the number of times in my working life where the words "unfortunately, I am not allowed to have an opinion about that policy" came out of my mouth - my, if I had a dollar for every time, I would have run off well before I did.

John Sheridan said...

I am the FAS in AGIMO responsible for Gov 2.0. I tweet as @sherro58 and you can find blog posts from me on the AGIMO blog ( ). You'd expect me to support this policy officially - and I do. But I also support it in my professional/private capacity. It is in that capacity (solely) that I make these comments.

Now let me turn to Greg’s analysis. Leaving points one and two alone, as has Greg, I’ll turn to point three – on which I disagree. The language in these policies is selected carefully, after consultation, often in great detail (and yes, Craig, AGIMO was consulted). ‘So harsh and extreme’ is very strong language indeed. Eventually, it is not a low level manager that will judge the harshness and extremity of comments. In extremis, it would be the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Trivial charges would be easily dismissed on the basis of this language.

Harshness and extremity is to be measured in the context of an employee’s ability to work ‘professionally, efficiently or impartially’. If you are a public servant and constantly (harshly and extremely) attack one side of politics, it’s going to be difficult to demonstrate that you are impartial. If you are senior enough to interact with that party’s officials – parliamentarians or their staff – then they won’t be able to trust you and you won’t be able to do your job.

Of course, attacking both or all sides of politics harshly and extremely is equally challenging – if no one in politics trusts you, you can’t work efficiently either. At lower levels, regular, extreme, intemperate comments are equally confronting – online or not.

I’d like to agree with Greg that the last four points seem so obvious that they could be left unsaid. But, sadly, that isn’t my experience. Outlining such inappropriateness, redundant for most people, ensures that the minority can’t claim ignorance.

The policy covers all unofficial comment that might ‘seriously disrupt the workplace’, not just social media. And, such comment must be ‘strong’ and addressed at the agency’s administration. I note too that the guidance reminds readers that the APS whistle-blower policy ( applies.

The reference to gratuitous attacks is about gratuitous personal attacks. Both adjectives are important – gratuitous means “uncalled for; lacking good reason; unwarranted”. I think it would be possible, indeed desirable, to criticise a policy position, or its implementation, without attacking someone personally.

I agree that, sadly, there are people who would seek to pursue public servants as a result of their public comments. The policy recognises this by emphasising the test of reasonability ( ). It’s important because it prevents the management excesses about which many commenters on this issue appear to be concerned.

Before I conclude, a brief word in defence of the APSC. The APSC issues these guidelines because that’s their job. They aren’t deep experts in every aspect of social media but the policy is not just about online comment. They did consult before the policy was issued. I’m not sure whether any individuals were asked. I do note that the APSC’s two rounds of public consultation on the APS values, conducted in 2010 and including a blog, did invite individual comments on a closely related area.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to note Greg’s contribution to breaking ground in this area. I regularly refer to Greg’s case as indicating that one can exercise the rights of every citizen and still be a public servant. I salute him and his managers for working their way through it. I look forward to reading Greg’s book – even if I probably won’t agree with all of it.

John Sheridan

Anonymous said...

Hey Greggy,

Always been a fan, always will.

No doubt it is truly the 'Jericho amendment'.

I can just imagine the geek who wrote those bizarre guidelines...'hmmm we must stop chaps like that Jericho fellow...the ripples would unsettle us too much...'.

He then came up with some pap and cc'd 12 other people for approval and merged all their stupid input and 'ideas' in coments boxes into one slimy and pulsating compromised document (none of us is dumber than all of us).

Whilst the guidelines are tastless you can rest assured the APS wont get its act together to enforce them. (I can imagine though political parties identifying orffending articles and giving it to the APSC for investigation.)

Que the self serving Massola article.


PS loved the argument about LBJ being the only Pres. who would have floated to the top of the Santorum of Australian politics and emerged as PM. I never turned my mind to this issue but have to agree.

Greg Jericho said...

Thanks John,

Really good comments. I hope you are right, my experience with the media however was being targeted by someone who quoted only part of APS code of conduct and saw no need to bother with the full context.

My concern with these guidelines is that will be even more likely to happen now. You are correct that there is precedence for what is harsh and extreme, but I just get a feeling some poor APS person is going to be some test case. He or she will likely to found to have not transgressed, but only after some media outlet or online blogger has had their fun.

In the end it comes down to individual agencies and training in which good examples are given so that boundaries are clear for all.

And as to my book - actually I'm sure you'll agree with a lot of it!

Steve Davies said...

Hi Greg - Like your comments on the APSC social media guidelines.

Overwhelmingly they accentuate FUD. This detracts from the positive and useful aspects and amounts to cautioning people to shut up.

Poor comms or a result of what was suggested by Agencies? The latter I suspect.

Anonymous said...

to the anon who said that they can't remember anyone being in trouble for use of Social Media, in my department it is very common. You post a comment on FB and you are explaining yourself in the manager's office the next day.

I actually wouldn't be so afraid of members of the public or media, it is the other staff who tend to put you in it first.

Greg Jericho said...

That's interesting anon. For my own part I don't think anyone in my department had ever read my blog!

Craig Thomler said...

Greg, your ex-office is now in my soon to be ex-department. I read your blog :)

To the latest Anonymous re staff reporting staff, the only hassles I have ever faced for my blog were the same. Was about personal politics or spite rather than management concern.

They were dealt with appropriately within the agencies.

However it is a real concern that could emerge, that internal agency politics or rivalries fed by poor understanding of APS codes lead to frivolous claims of inappropriate social media behaviour.

There is a cost to individuals who use social media, both personal and professional, even when no real cause.

Hopefully this will reduce as agencies invest in educating their staff and as frivolous complaints are addressed appropriately.

Best thing to do is to get everything on the record. Those who dislike writing things down are often the least reliable complainers.

Nicholas Gruen said...

I'd be interested to know how the APSC developed the new guidelines. As we pointed out in the Gov 2 Taskforce deliberations, this kind of thing is ideal for discussing openly on a blog or similar online device where public servants - and others - can discuss the issues. From what John Sheridan has said it was not done that way, but rather "AGIMO" was consulted, which I think John might agree is not the same as consulting - or more particularly - ENGAGING, those who are particularly interested in the matter.

John Sheridan said...

I'm not the APSC spokesperson but I know they consulted widely across agencies. The new guidelines are not just for online communication but any communication. This is a trend I have noted in many such documents across other governments and businesses. Further, IMHO, the new guidelines clarify rather than change the original advice.

As I noted, they conducted a public consultation on APS values including a social media component - an example of engaging as the Government's response to the Task Force report agreed would be done.

Craig Thomler said...

Is there an APSC spokesperson who responds on blogs?

Greg Jericho said...

Craig, that John is providing most of the information on this (which is much appreciated) demonstrates as I wrote, the APSC knows bugger all about social media (and I would suggest, all communication)

Putting out new advice and then no discussion of what it might mean on the forums in which such communication occurs is pretty weak.

If I am wrong about what these guidelines meant - then where is the APSC providing a response?

If I have over-reacted, fine, but thus far all I have heard from the APSC is an interview with Stephen Sedgwick in which he said the guidelines were the equivalent of a "phone call from your mother".


@grmsn said...

This is one of the biggest issues I have seen the government face. Social media is inherently risky, both professionally and privately, it is a medium that social norms and values structures have not fully evolved around, nor have cultural codes of conduct to which people will instinctively adhere to.

This has a tremendous impact on a public servants ability to be both a citizen and a public servant – take for example the Internet Censorship debate. Many public servants, especially those in the ICT strongly opposed the policy, they were perhaps the most credible commentators and they were able to rightly publicly oppose what is still perceived to be a horrible policy that should never have seen the light of day.

Such public backlash, with such harsh criticism of the policy would fall fowl under this policy.

Public servants are often the ones who are able to make best sound assessments of good and bad policy. This adjustment to the code of conduct goes beyond clarifying more traditional elements of the guidelines, it actually says, you people who are best positioned to discuss this subject matter in an open forum may not do so if it looks like your opinion could sway public opinion away from what the government intends to do.

Last quick point. A closed Facebook profile is the equivalent of a person’s lounge room where they might hold discussions with their friends in a frank and fearless manner. What right does any business or government have to step into someone’s lounge room and tell them what they can and cannot discuss. I am pretty sure Hitler had people running around listening at windows, is that the direction we really want to public service to go?

This policy will be dated quicker than a social media strategy – the technology moves to fast for us to set standards which don’t match the nature of the social media and 2.0 technology space. No account made for private discussion amongst private people.

This was my HO, no slander intended, no menace intended, please don’t have me sacked for having an opinion that you got it wrong in a big way.

Side note for an APSC rep and John – I never saw any consultation which would indicate this type of extreme version of the policy.

Greg Jericho said...

Thanks @grmsn, some good points.

Anonymous said...

Having worked for the APS for some years I read the Markus Mannheim piece with a feeling of disquiet, although given the prevailing culture it is not altogether surprising.

The article made reference to the idea that anonymity does not provide protection. That is, assume you may be identified or 'outed'. Public servants are also citizens wth rights - including those that allow participation in online social media. We are not China.

Naturally under Code of Conduct provisions, there is some merit in avoiding subject areas which one may have a conflict of interest and trust. However, fear of 'outings' should not legitimise a an on freedoms others take for granted.

Those who choose anonymity have a right to privacy. These issue of social media has crept into security clearance processes as though an anonymous comment makes one more 'suspect' than just thinking quietly to oneself.

The only responsibility for reputation lies with the departmental heads and ministers. the public service will be far more judged appropriately by behaviour and outcomes (results). This would also arguabley include reputations around transparency, handling of whistleblowers and access to documents. It is these sorts of actions, like cover-ups, that bring the APS into disrepute far more than any measured comment on social media.

Greg Jericho said...

Thanks Anon. I apologise for only just posting this comment - it was put automatically into the spam filter, and I often forget to check it.