Civil servants have been reminded of their duty to stay above the political fray in the run-up to the local and devolved elections.
Ahead of a general election, officials are bound by a strict "purdah" period which limits their activity and prevents ministers from making major policy decisions or signing big or contentious contracts.
Such tight restrictions are not required for the elections slated for May 5 – which will include votes on the make-up of the Scottish parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly and a raft of English local authorities as well as for the Mayor of London. However, guidance issued by the Cabinet Office on Thursday makes clear that the activities of the UK departments in the run-up to the vote could still "have a bearing on the election campaigns", and urges officials to use their judgement and take "particular care" to consider whether any announcements could have an impact on the various votes.
PACAC's Bernard Jenkin urges Jeremy Heywood to withdraw "confusing" EU vote rules for civil servants after taking legal advice
Government suffers first Commons defeat over EU referendum purdah rules
"In particular, civil servants are under an obligation to ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes; and not to undertake any activity which could call into question their political impartiality," the guidance states. "It is important to remember that this applies to on-line communication, for example using social media, in the same way as off-line activity."
The Cabinet Office tells civil servants that it "may be better to defer an announcement until after the elections", although acknowledges that a delay "could itself influence the political outcome" and says officials to consider each case "on its merits".
Care should also be taken, the guidance says, in planning ministerial visits and ensuring that paid publicity campaigns by departments are not left "open to the criticism that it is being undertaken for party political purposes".
The document (available in full below) calls for "even-handedness in meeting information requests from the different political parties and campaigning groups", and tells civil servants that they should "not be asked to provide new arguments for use in election campaign debates".
Officials with any concerns about what the elections mean for their department are urged to contact their permanent secretary's office or to get in touch with the Cabinet Office's Propriety and Ethics Team, which deals with civil service ethics and standards.
May's elections come ahead of the UK-wide vote on whether or not to remain in the European Union, which is set to take place on June 23. Separate guidance issued to officials ahead of the referendum has been the subject of some political controversy, with eurosceptics arguing that it leaves ministers in favour of quitting the EU at a disadvantage.
A formal period of "purdah", imposing further limits on officials before the EU vote, will kick in 28 days before the referendum, with the Cabinet Office shortly expected to brief civil servants on what those curbs will mean in practice.
May 2016 Elections Conduct Guidance