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Public Sector Social Media Guidelines & Safeguarding Citizens Information

A look into how social media guidelines can become unclear to civil servants and how some personal data can be at risk when using social media.

When it comes to social media guidelines, I think it can be both easy and time consuming to write a bunch of rules and restrictions and expect people to follow them. But the truth is, guidelines are basically just rules of what you expect people to do or not to do. Its rare that in reality that those guidelines are read or clear in guiding someone’s actions online, outside the office and on their own electronic devices.

Common sensecommon sense is NOT common! (a quote by James Coltham -@prettysimple) .

Sometimes these guidelines become blurry and somewhat irrelevant because when you post your feelings and thoughts, you thought you were only sharing your personal experiences. And how can talking about yourself harm others, right?

Wrong!

The good, the bad and the ugly and the possibly misunderstood

The video above is a great example on how good intentions when shared online can have devastating effects for individuals involved.  It shows 2 different scenarios where we could possibly learn a thing or two about social media guidelines and safeguarding citizen’s information online, especially when the usage of social media is outside of the workplace, where some social media guideline fail to address and policies are less clear and the potential inappropriate use of social media is greatly increased.  It also demonstrates when social media is used inappropriately and how no one, whether old or young and experienced or not, can make a lapse judgement when using social media.

Nursing Case Study

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Scenario 1: Inappropriate use may violate patient privacy and confidentiality

Emily was a nursing student in a paediatrics rotation. She cared for Tommy, a 5 year old patient who was recently diagnosed  with Type 1 diabetes. Tommy was going home soon, so Emily took at picture of him to remember him by. That evening she posted his picture on her Facebook page, commenting on how brave he was when was getting his insulin injections.

Two days later, Emily was called into her dean’s office. A nurse from the hospital had seen the photo and caption and reported them to hospital officials.  Emily was informed that her actions were a breach of her patients confidentiality and a violation of federal privacy laws. Eventhough Emily had an excellent record as a student nurse and had only the best intentions in her post, she was expelled from her nursing program and the program was barred from using the paediatrics unit for their students.

Scenario 2: Experience and years of service doesn’t necessary mean you always make the right judgement

Jason has been an nurse for 12 years and is working in hospice care. One of his current patients, Maria, maintains a hospital sponsored online page to keep her family and friends updated on battle with cancer. One day, she posted something about her depression and the difficulty of finding treatment for her physical pain. Jason saw the post and responded by writing a comment to Maria. He wrote saying that he understood that her last few days have been tough and he was hopeful that the new medication along with the increase dose of morphine would provide some needed relief.

The next day, Jason ran into a friend who said she saw his post.  She said Maria was an old family friend, was sad to hear of her condition and asked Jason how long he thought Maria had left.  Now fully understanding the implications of what he had done, he immediately went home and tried to remove his post but was unable to do so. Besides even if he had been successful in removing it, it may have already copied by others and posted elsewhere.

At his next visit with Maria, Jason told her what had happened and apologized. Jason then self-reported his breach of patient confidentiality to his board of nursing and is waiting the boards decision on any disciplinary action.

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Some useful tips shared in this video
  • Don’t assume all posts, even if private, are accessible by only the intended recipient.
  • Don’t assume that deleted content is no longer accessible.
  • It’s not acceptable to refer to a patient in a post, even if not revealing their name.
  • Never take photos of videos of patients or people under your care on personal devices.
  • Always follow employer policies for using media devices for treatment purposes.
  • Carefully consider the full implications of all posts about patients / clients / citizens on any website, including those sponsored by your organization.
  • It may at times appropriate to express empathy and support for patients / clients / citizens on any website, but they must be careful not to disclose private information.

Better safe than sorry

Social media is a conversation that can start offline and carry on online. Make sure you define those spaces and think before posting anything related to work online.

Here’s a useful social media guideline poster for civil servants designed by Helpful Technology that might help you define these parameters. But bare in mind, all services are different. Some deal with more private data than others. Also, you need to take into consideration the technology or platform that you are using. What parameters do they have set to protect your organization and any private data that may be at risk? Have you developed any necessary precautions or guidelines to support any technology shortfalls when protecting personal data?

I’m a Civil Servant: Should I Post This Update?

Try to stay ahead and think of possible scenarios and discuss the possible actions, then ensure your social media guidelines reflect them.

I’d love to hear possible scenarios like this in your services. Its not that we want to encourage this behaviour, but I think its good to have examples ‘closer to home’, as its a much better way of educating people on their actions online rather than producing a document that might or might not be read and only referred to when punishing someone who has already done wrong.

Hope this was useful.

About Liz Azyan

Liz is a CREATIVE digital professional dedicated to helping individuals, governments and businesses realize their digital goals. She offers digital consultancy services on her website LizAzyan.com Liz is also a Google Fellowship Recipient (individuals selected based on their work and initiative in the arenas of technology, politics and social entrepreneurship), an invited expert panel on the Guardian’s Public Leader Network and has spoken at many public events and conferences on the subject of digital engagement.

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