Online engagement caretaker guidance

Agency websites are required to be impartial and apolitical, especially during the caretaker period (prior to an election, or when a sitting government loses its parliamentary majority). There are particular requirements for this period, known as the Caretaker Conventions.

To comply with the Caretaker Conventions agencies may need to modify their use of online engagement tools used to communicate with and seek feedback from the public, such as blogs or social media sites such as Facebook. The Guidance on Caretaker Conventions – (PDF 187kb) issued by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet states:

6.2.9 The interactive functions of websites within the gov.au domain such as discussion groups, chat rooms or blogs which allow unmoderated comment or debate should be moderated during the caretaker period. Words along the following lines might be appropriate: “In the period preceding an election for the House of Representatives, the Australian Government assumes a caretaker role. It is important during that time that Australian Government resources are not used to communicate political material. As this website is hosted by the [Department of …], the site will be moderated from the time the House of Representatives is dissolved until after the election to ensure that political material is not placed on the site.”

Expanding this guidance, online engagement tools used by agencies should be reviewed, and risks re-evaluated, at the start of the caretaker period to ensure that material in breach of the Caretaker Conventions is not communicated by users of the tools.

The guidance below focuses on how the Caretaker Conventions impact on the interactive functions of online engagement tools, such as the commenting features of blogs or Facebook pages. The question of what content agencies can deliver through these engagement tools during the caretaker period is addressed in the existing Guidance on Caretaker Conventions. For example, while content such as public health announcements and certain recruitment activities may be appropriate during the caretaker period, announcements about new policy initiatives or programs would not be.

Operation of agency engagement tools within government websites during the caretaker period (e.g. blogs, message boards, chat rooms)

In many cases (but not all) agencies will have greater control over engagement tools within government websites, such as blogs, than those tools which are part of a third-party service such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. The former category includes government websites on the .gov.au and other domains, including websites hosted by third-party providers. Depending on the level of risk during caretaker period, options for reducing the likelihood of political material being communicated through engagement tools within government websites include:

  • Stopping the engagement for the duration of the caretaker period. This does not necessarily mean completely removing the tool from the site – rather halting the interactive elements (such as the ability to comment).
  • Changing the engagement and moderation process. This should include posting a notice that the agency is operating in a caretaker period and cannot host or respond to political content. It may also involve changing moderation policies and processes to ensure pre-moderation of all material, so that moderation of all publically-submitted content occurs prior to publication.
  • Making no changes to operating arrangements where there is deemed to be minimal risk of political material being communicated under current arrangements.

Agency use of third-party engagement tools (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube)

Online engagement tools which are external to government websites (fe.g. Facebook and Twitter) are inherently harder to control than those discussed above. For example, an agency may have a Facebook page which allows minimal moderation of the content that is posted to it, or a Twitter account which may be sent publically-viewable messages containing political content. Agencies should consider as part of their risk assessment process that it may not be possible to completely prevent political material from being posted or directed by the public to agency accounts operated on third-party services such as Facebook and Twitter.

Agencies should review the functions and settings of each externally-hosted engagement tool at the start of the caretaker period to identify ways to minimise political content associated with their presence (even if not directly attributable to the agency). Actions to achieve this may include:

  • not posting new content to the account for the duration of the caretaker period
  • disabling or opting for pre-moderation of comment sections if possible, and closer monitoring of public contributions if not
  • posting a notice that the agency is operating in a caretaker period and cannot respond to political content.

Individual public servants

Individual public servants who engage online in either a professional or personal capacity during the caretaker period should review the Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) advice Revisions to the Commission’s guidance on making public comment and participating online.

Last Reviewed: 2013-08-05