A chilling memo to civil servants from the McNeil government

There are days it’s hard to remember Justin Trudeau and Stephen McNeil belong to the same political party. Justin is so sunny, sunny ways; McNeil can be so Harperesque.

Trudeau had not been prime minister three days when his Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development assured government scientists they were free to communicate with the media and the public—thus putting paid to the previous government’s muzzling.

Last Thursday, the bureaucrat in charge of the McNeil government’s communications agency warned the province’s civil servants to be circumspect on social media.

“Some types of personal use [of social media],” wrote Tracey Taweel, “can result in discipline, up to and including dismissal, if they are damaging to the Government’s reputation.”

Here’s the full text of her memo:

From: Communications NS
Sent: Thursday, January 28, 2016 4:59 PM
To:  [redacted]
Subject: [NSG Broadcast] Government Social Media Policy


This email is a reminder that Government has a social media policy that applies to personal use of social media channels. I urge you to periodically revisit this document here:


Please take note of Appendix 6-B, Guidelines for Employees’ Use of Social Media.

Key points of these guidelines include:

  • Recognize that anything posted on the Internet is there indefinitely and available to a wide audience, including your colleagues and managers. Even if you attempt to delete the post, photo, comment, etc., it is likely that it has been stored in any number of other places. Content posted to the Internet should be thought of as permanent.
  • Never make partisan, political comments while speaking as a government employee. Comments must be objective in nature. Do not refer or link to the websites or social media accounts of politicians or political parties.
  • By virtue of your position, you should consider whether personal thoughts you publish may be misunderstood as expressing the positions or opinions of the Government of Nova Scotia.

Therefore, caution is advisable.

Some types of personal use can result in discipline, up to and including dismissal, if they are damaging to the Government’s reputation or inconsistent with your work obligations.  This is true, even when done on your personal time, on your own computer, and on websites that are unrelated to your workplace.  Further,  please use common sense and exercise good judgment in the use of social media during your working hours.

If you have any questions about Government’s social media policy, please contact Communications Nova Scotia.

Thank you,
Tracey Taweel
Associate Deputy Minister
Communications Nova Scotia

In the interests of disclosure, I should point out Taweel is a friend I regard as very capable at public communications. Thus my surprise she would write such a heavy-handed memo, and circulate it so widely it was certain to find its way to the media.

A colleague with deep experience in both news-gathering and government communications, called the memo, “a masterpiece of ambiguity, beginning with reasonable advice about what you should say when identified as a government employee, then slip-sliding into a warning about  the consequences of speaking your mind about anything, anywhere, while employed by government.”

By telephone, Taweel insisted the memo was not intended to muzzle civil servants using social media. She also said she sent it on her own initiative, not on instructions from Zack Churchill, Minister responsible for Communications Nova Scotia, or anyone else.

“Across government, a lot of government people aren’t comfortable with the digital world,” Taweel said. “The more we become involved wth social media as a way to communicate with the public, the greater the need to educate people on how to use it.”

“Our policy is meant to encourage use of social media. I don’t want to stop that in any way,” she added.

In fact, the social media policy Taweel linked to does emphasize the importance of government using social media to communicate. But Taweel’s memo focuses on admonitions contained in an appendix to the policy warning employees of severe employment consequences if their use of social media embarrasses the government.

Another friend, also with deep experience in journalism and corporate communications, finds Taweel’s memo unsurprising. It’s naive, he thinks, to ignore the potential for private behaviour to embarrass an employer.

“Employers are increasingly intrusive regarding the lives of their employees, under the premise that an employee’s actions 24/7 can reflect on the employer’s public reputation,” my friend said.

Would anyone object if the government disciplined an employee who yelled FHRITP at a female reporter recording a standup? Or sacked a misogynist who doxxed a battered women’s shelter?

Trouble is, Taweel’s artfully ambiguous memo seems likely to deter a lot more than sexist slurs. It will make civil servants think three or four times before making any comment on any public issue, even on their own time, their own computer, their own Facebook account.

And I can’t help suspecting that’s exactly what Stephen McNeil hopes Taweel’s memo will accomplish.