The New Brunswick government should issue clear guidelines on how politicians and public agencies communicate on social media forums, according to a new report from the official languages commissioner.
Michel Carrier issued his annual report on Thursday that included several investigations into language complaints levelled at the provincial government and many of his own recommendations on strengthening the provision of services.
Carrier said in his report that several organizations asked whether the Official Languages Act applied to social media.
"In the commissioner’s view, these inquiries clearly demonstrate the need to establish guidelines for public agencies in this regard," the report said.
"Furthermore, he has recommended this to the premier."
Carrier said specific rules need to be established regarding how the language law applies to:
- The use of bilingual public forums and unilingual forums
- The use of personal accounts, such as Twitter, by government employees and the resulting linguistic obligations
- The use of third parties in the management or moderation of government public forums
Only a handful of the 55 New Brunswick MLAs are active users of the micro-blogging service Twitter. Most of the Twitter messages are in English, however, some bilingual MLAs will send out messages in both official languages.
Premier David Alward has an official Twitter account in English and French. So messages, for instance, sent from the French account — @CabinetPM_NB — are sent only in French.
The provincial government's recently formed natural gas group has recently set up accounts in both languages — @NBGroupeGazNat and @NBNatGasGroup.
A similar tactic was also used by the province's energy commission. In the commission's final report, it described some of the problems of using social media in the context of a government commission.
The report, which was led by Jeannot Volpé, a former Tory finance minister and Bill Thompson, a former deputy minister of energy, cited concerns with how public servants interacted with the public and not specifically about the language the messages were sent in.
"Social media are difficult for governmental organizations to use and execute. Full participatory use of this method involves giving up a certain amount of control over information flow and input that is publicly visible," the energy report said.
"While this method promotes greater transparency, risks occur in the potential spread of misinformation or negative portrayal of official activities. Humour, informality and personal hosting attachment to public sector organizations can all present challenges to the way that governments operate due to public scrutiny."
Progress being made
Carrier said in his annual report that there was progress being made on the delivery of public services in both official languages.
But the title of his report, "Move Forward or Lose Ground," offered a sense of Carrier's overall tone throughout the document.
The Official Languages Act is set to be reviewed in the next year by the legislative assembly. The former Bernard Lord government brought in a new law in 2002 and made it mandatory to review the law in 10 years.
"New Brunswick has made remarkable progress in official languages over the past few decades. However, the government must not rest on its laurels," Carrier's report said.
"All of this progress is fragile because we must not forget, there is that general trend of the predominance of English. We therefore have to continue moving forward or lose ground."