Digital: Friend Or Foe To Government Transparency?

Brian Lee-Archer

Recently dominating the headlines in Canberra, home of Australia’s federal government, was the following: “‘Nanny state!’ New crackdown on public servants’ Facebook.”

Was this a sensationalist headline, a real issue in terms of national security, another case of the digital agenda out of control and irreversibly changing life as we know it, or perhaps an important social issue in need of some healthy public examination and debate in this age of the digital revolution? Like many things reported in the media, it was likely a mix of all of the above, with a social issue in need of some healthy public examination and debate as the main order of the day.

You, however, are left wondering if perhaps the “nanny state” headline was not over the top when the article reads:

“The department, which has already asked its workers to dob in colleagues for their online activities, now insists its public servants lock their personal Facebook accounts with the tightest possible privacy settings and tells them how to configure their passwords.”

This made me reflect on some research from another project involving behavioral science and nudge theory in social protection where the question of the nanny state and coercive activity by government was raised. One of my research associates pointed out that the initial use of the term “nanny state,” by Iain MacLeod in 1965, described a state that takes a “hyper interest in micromanaging the welfare of its citizens, shielding us from our own injurious and irrational behavior” (Harsanyi, 2007). Over time, the nanny state tendency to micromanage has evolved to include not only excessively injurious or irrational behavior – rather, the nanny state seeks to suppress any behavior it views as less than ideal, such as welfare dependency.

The question of free speech in the digital world is certainly going to challenge what people and governments think is fair and reasonable and where a line has to be drawn – e.g. content that is racist, sexist, incites hatred, breaches national security, or is shared without consent. There is a risk of a nanny state situation if governments overextend their reach into the personal lives of citizens, including their employees (who are citizens themselves). The digital world enables words and statements to go viral in an instant, whereas a public servant’s rant in the pub to a few mates against government policy they are involved in, while not desirable, is relatively contained.

It is worth examining how a country with a long history of protecting the freedom of speech in the media might deal with this situation. In 1766, Sweden became the first country in the world to include the freedom of the press within its constitution. In June Sweden celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Swedish Press Act.

Sweden has one of the highest levels of Internet usage in the EU, with 93% of the population having access to the Internet, 70% of whom are connected to Facebook. The freedom of information principle gives the general public and the mass media access to official records, enabling Swedish citizens insight into the activities of government and local authorities. Scrutiny is seen as valuable for a democracy, and transparency reduces the risk of power being abused. Many countries today have similar freedom of information provisions. What makes Sweden stand out is that access to official records also means that civil servants and others who work for the government are free to inform the media or third parties – with the exception of documents that involve matters of national security.

Challenging the freedom of expression, including the rights of civil servants, is considered a threat to democracy. In Sweden, the right to freely express oneself, including via social media, is considered a foundational pillar of a free society.

Openness and transparency appear fundamental to the Swedish approach. The digital age ups the ante on these principles. The speed, reach, and ubiquitous nature of digital communication is a whole new ballgame when separating people’s work and private lives, and their rights with respect to the different personas they may have in the digital world. As a society we need to debate these issues and find a common ground on what is fair and reasonable, what is clearly not, and what might sit within a grey zone. It is inevitable there will be issues with disclosure of information and expressions of free speech via social media that will fall within what is considered a controversial zone. Some people, employers, and government departments may like it, while others may not – that is democracy at work.

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Image: Sebastiaan ter Burg via Flickr

Brian Lee-Archer

About Brian Lee-Archer

Brian Lee-Archer is director of the SAP Institute for Digital Government Global (SIDG). Launched in 2015, SIDG is a global think tank that aims to create value for government by leveraging digital capability to meet the needs of citizens and consumers of government services. In collaboration with government agencies, universities and partner organizations, SIDG facilitates innovation through digital technology for deeper policy insight and improved service delivery.