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Should I retweet that political comment? When can I express my frustration with politicians on my Facebook page? Federal employees need to know the answers to those questions before posting their political views.
With local and national election season in full swing, the office that handles inquiries about the workings of the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel, has clarified some of the nuances related to use of social media and published them on its website.
“We thought it’d be helpful to clarify and give some real world examples of what federal employees may do in the social media, in terms of staying on the right side of the Hatch Act,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner told Federal Drive with Tom Temin.
“You can’t tweet, retweet, share, or like a post or content that solicits political contributions at any time. And you can’t engage in political activity via social media while on duty or in the workplace,” said Turner.
Simply put, Kerner offers these bullet points for federal employees:
• Don’t solicit or accept political contributions.
• Don’t engage in political activity on duty or in your official capacity.
• Don’t use your official position to promote or oppose candidates for partisan office.
• Don’t run for partisan elective office as a federal employee.
Questions about drawing a line between political actions and the federal workplace are numerous.
Just this week, the OSC announced Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway had violated the Hatch Act “by using authority or influence to interfere with or affect elections.” It also found Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly broke Hatch Act rules for what it ruled was a re-election pitch for President Donald Trump.
It’s OSC’s job to enforce the Hatch Act and ensure that federal programs are administered in a non-partisan fashion. As the agency’s top administrator, Kerner suggested federal employees avoid mixing their First Amendment interests in political participation with your work. “As long as you keep those two separate, you should be OK,” he said.
If you question whether your plans for participation in politics comply with the law, Kerner wants federal employees to know the Office of Special Council can provide guidance.
“We provide advisory opinions, thousands of them, in fact,” Kerner said. “We have a website where social media guidance is very active, with a lot of really good, clear examples of what’s allowed and what’s not.”
Hatch Act through the years
The Act has evolved since 1939, when Sen. Carl Hatch of New Mexico offered the legislation to protest of the political involvement of federal employees in primaries and general elections. The original measure focused on the misuse of official authority or influence, and the misuse of workplace and official duties.
Reform amendments to the law in 1993 relaxed the rules to allow federal employees permission to work on partisan campaigns, but only while off-duty,
More changes came when President Barack Obama signed the Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012. It modified penalties to allow for disciplinary actions in addition to removal for federal employee, and allowed most state and local government employees to run for partisan political office.
What’s less known about the Hatch Act is that it protects federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and it ensures federal employees can move upward in their career based on merit, and not on their political affiliation.
“The Hatch Act is actually in federal employee’s interest,” said Turner. “You don’t want to have a system where there’s pressure for you to sort of go along with whatever the dominant party is.”
The OSC’s other main job is to handle claims of wrongdoing within the executive branch of the federal government from current federal employees, former employees and applicants for federal employment.
These so-called whistleblowers are important for pointing out violations of laws or regulations, but they also help protect the public from gross mismanagement, waste of funds and abuse of authority.
“It’s really important that federal workers feel that their agency understands the value of whistleblowers and helps cultivate a culture of respect for their contribution,” Kerner said.
For Kerner, that means starting at the top, reaching out to agency heads.
“We try to meet with them to reinforce why we believe whistleblowers are so key to the work they do.”
“Coming to the realization that whistleblowers are an asset, and communicating that to employees, I think, would dramatically change the culture of the entire federal government,” Kerner said. “That kind of proactive approach would help prevent problems before they even start.”
Maybe some people are getting the message.
OSC’s case load has exploded, nearly doubling over the past four years to more than 6,000 new matters.
Perhaps it means there been an increase in corruption in the government. Kerner said he prefers to believe it means more people feel like they can come forward.
“I want to credit my predecessor, Carolyn Lerner with that. She really did an excellent job of promoting the agency, letting federal workers know that we exist, letting them know that we can be a resource and we can be a place for them to go if they have a prohibited personnel practice or disclosure,” said Kerner.
“We absolutely want to make it clear to the federal workforce that we stand ready to help.”