GSA, union negotiate on rules for workers' posts on Facebook, other social media

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The General Services Administration is attempting to become the first civilian federal agency to codify how workers should behave on Facebook and Twitter, but it faces resistance from one of its unions over the use of social media Web sites.

GSA officials and representatives of the National Federation of Federal Employees' GSA National Council are set to resume negotiations Wednesday, two weeks after talks broke down over the proposed social media policy. The government wants GSA workers who post comments on non-agency Web sites to consider adding a disclaimer that their opinions do not reflect official GSA policy. It also wants to remind workers not to share details of internal discussions or agency policy on non-GSA blogs.

"Assume your thoughts are in the public domain and can be published or discussed in all forms of media. Have no expectation of privacy," the proposed policy states.

The proposal is meant to provide guiding principles and will evolve as technology changes, the GSA said.

Charles A. Paidock, who is leading the union's negotiating team, presented an alternative proposal that would keep the use of social media sites separate from the agency's standards of professional practice and conduct. The agency could punish workers only if they breached GSA's security or confidentiality agreements, according to the proposals.

"I think the agency would benefit more if they opened it up a bit. Everyone benefits from free speech," Paidock said.

John M. Hanley, union president, said that sites such as Facebook, MySpace and FourSquare are popular with his members, but he worried that the agency might overreach.

"I'm afraid that if people are doing something with their friends, it'll get back to GSA and there's some ramifications with it," Hanley said. He's also concerned that GSA will bypass the union and use agency blogs to communicate workplace policy.

"GSA encourages the use of social media technologies to enhance communication, collaboration, and information exchange in support of GSA's mission," agency spokeswoman Caren Auchman said in a statement. "GSA is currently in negotiations with NFFE to go through normal labor management processes to reach resolution."

An American Federation of Government Employees council that represents other GSA workers approved the agency's proposal last year, Auchman said. AFGE did not return requests for comment.

Tim O'Reilly, a social media expert and leading advocate for offering more government services online, said the public sector has struggled with adapting to new technologies for years. He recalled trying to convince lawmakers in the 1990s that they needed to use e-mail to reach constituents.

"Some listened, others didn't, and the ones who didn't listen lost," O'Reilly said. "There are organizations resistant to using social media or any of these new technologies, and they're going to be less effective from the people who do, and they're going to lose."

Part of the impasse between GSA and NFFE is due to an unfamiliarity with fast-changing technologies, said Steve Ressler, founder of GovLoop, a privately run social media Web site for public sector employees. But some sort of written policy is needed to help establish ground rules, he said.

"Much like at happy hours, you don't do certain things," Ressler said. "It's probably the same thing here."

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