Support for open government, social media freedom gaining ground after agencies told to button up

Initial shock and online backlash after a handful of federal agencies were handed down communication directives has given way to backtracking and also encouragement for federal employees to stand up for open government and whistleblowing.

The National Association of Government Communicators issued a statement Jan. 25, urging communication officials to turn to the association if they need guidance, and reminded the new administration that “good government requires good communication.”

“Regardless of whether the shuttering or suspension of Twitter accounts and the cessation of external engagement is directed by the administration, or, is an action initiated organically by federal agencies, the actions are contrary to the public interest and incompatible with the NAGC’s Code of Ethics,” the association said. “The realignment of messaging, reprioritization of communication and assessing an agency’s digital footprint can be achieved without the draconian measures being taken by some federal agencies.”

The Office of Special Counsel reminded federal employees about an anti-gag order provision in the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), which protects against agencies imposing “nondisclosure agreements and policies that fail to include required language that informs employees that their statutory right to blow the whistle supersedes the terms and conditions of the nondisclosure agreement or policy.”

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“The federal government must foster an environment where employee disclosures are welcomed,” said OSC Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “This makes our government work better and protects taxpayer dollars through disclosures of waste, fraud and abuse. Nondisclosure agreements and policies can chill would-be whistleblowers from coming forward. These orders must clearly state that federal employees have a right to make disclosures of wrongdoing.”

Multiple media outlets reported that in recent days the Trump administration issued communication orders to several agencies including the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department.

Those orders ranged from blocking external communication on social media, gag orders to reporters, and even rerouting congressional briefings to specific offices.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) tweeted Wednesday that federal employees could call him and they would be protected if they wanted to talk with congressional lawmakers.

Chris Bentley, director of communications at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, told Federal News Radio that there “never has been, never will be” a prohibition on sharing information on ARS science with the public.

“If we can’t share our results, our research results, with the public and academia and fellow researchers, then we are kind of rudderless,” Bentley said.

On Jan. 23, ARS Chief of Staff Sharon Drum had sent out an email obtained by Federal News Radio stating that “until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes, but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

But in a Jan. 24 email obtained by Federal News Radio, ARS Administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, Ph.D. clarified that that earlier email had been sent prior to guidance from USDA’s Acting Deputy Secretary Michael Young.

“The official guidance states that the Secretary’s office should be consulted on media inquiries and proposed responses to questions related to legislation, budgets, policy issues and regulations and that policy related statements should not be made to the press without notifying and consulting with the Office of the Secretary,” Jacobs-Young said. “The departmental guidance does not, and was never intended, to cover all public-facing documents. For example, scientific publications released through peer reviewed professional journals are not covered.”

Staffers in EPA’s public affairs office are instructed to forward all inquiries from reporters to the Office of Administration and Resources Management, the Associated Press reported.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Wednesday that there’s been no mandate from the White House about social media, but that several agencies “have had problems adhering to their own policies.”

“I would refer you back to them as to why those things are happening,” Spicer said during the Jan. 25 White House press conference. “Now they are taking steps in both  of those two cases to address inappropriate use of social media.”

The AP reported earlier this week that Interior Department employees were temporarily stopped from Tweeting after the National Park Service account retweeted pictures comparing the crowd at Trump’s inauguration to the one gathered for former President Obama’s inauguration.

A request for comment from DOI — which oversees the National Park Service — was not immediately returned.

A former Obama administration official told Federal News Radio that agencies use social media in a variety of different ways, depending on the account type, the audience and the message.

Agencies that lack political leadership might play it safe, the former official said, and ask their public affairs offices to not issue statements or post messages to social media until new leadership arrives.

“Some agencies use social media to amplify press releases, statements, speeches, or work the agency or principal is doing, others use it as a way to educate or to field questions so they can assist constituents,” the former official said. “Every agency has their own social media policy that dictates how they will use social media, the accounts they have authorized, and how they will engage people through comments, messages, and tweets.”

Another former government official said social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook allow agencies that might have budget constraints or resource restraints to still be able to reach a wide audience.

While it’s not unusual to have a checks and balances system to ensure an administration’s message is shared, centralizing who is spreading that message is going to put a lot of pressure on the office in charge of that communication, the person said.

The former official said right now some press offices might not even be full, or if they are, it could be a mix of political appointees and career civil servants.

Regardless, the goal of these offices is to get information to the public, “and make sure the information is relayed to the people in such a way that they feel secure and have access to resources.”

A third federal official familiar with government communications said social media has been embraced as a good way to communicate with stakeholders, but that wasn’t always the case.

“Government agencies went to social media a little bit on the kicking and screaming side,” the individual said. “Really, it was the fear of people being able to answer and post on social media sites. It took a while before that trust between the public and government agencies. Now I think many agencies have come to rely on social media as a very strong part of their constituent interaction.”