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At Work on the Web

State and local agencies often block employee access to entire categories of online content, from politics to porn.


Mark Stencel

Mark Stencel was previously GOVERNING's executive editor and deputy publisher.

Where is the best place on the Web to post a series of instructive videos for state officials about Internet security? On YouTube, of course.

The National Association of State Chief Information Officers did exactly that earlier this year. Just one problem: Iowa technology leader John Gillispie, the association's president, couldn't watch the videos. State employees in the offices where he works are blocked from accessing YouTube on their work computers; it is classified as an "entertainment" Web site.

Gillispie isn't the only one who has run into this kind of online roadblock at work. Restrictive Internet use policies, backed by software designed to monitor and control employees' online activities, are common in many state and local government agencies. Tech administrators often block employee access to entire categories of potentially inappropriate online content, from politics to porn. Many also block instant messaging and personal Webmail services to prevent employees from using these applications to conduct back-channel business.

Websense Inc., the maker of one widely used "employee Internet management" tool, says public officials are right to be wary. The company's Web site says "Internet misuse" exposes managers and their bosses to legal liabilities, security breaches and productivity losses.

Public-sector managers also have potential public relations worries to consider. Word that government employees are wasting chunks of the work day surfing the Web could outrage parsimonious taxpayers. Top Florida officials got a taste of that last August when the St. Petersburg Times (Governing's corporate parent) used a revealing Web tool called WikiScanner to see which state computer networks were being used to submit changes on Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia that's written and edited by its readers. Among the changes the newspaper found were a correction made by someone in the governor's office to an article about the 1980s pop band the Go-Gos and a health department employee's change to a profile of a Tampa-area porn star.

"Our tax dollars at work," one reader grumbled in a comment posted about the Times article. "Just shows how over-staffed the government is," said another. "Bring on the layoffs!"

But some Florida workers who commented online about the article complained that they were being held to an unreasonable standard. After all, what was the harm in a little Web browsing after hours or during a lunch break if they were not hogging bandwidth or exposing the network to security threats?

In fact, government policies aimed at restricting Web access may be doing as much harm as they are preventing. First, many online tools have professional as well as personal applications. Travel sites, for instance, can be used to save money on business trips as well as to plan vacations. And social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook are just as useful for recruiting and vetting potential employees as they are for job hunting.

Barring access to much of the Web also can hamper e-government, especially if policies prevent employees from using the private-sector e-commerce sites that set citizens' expectations for online services. The people who are most likely to transact with government Web sites expect all of the "1-Click," "Buy Now," "Update My Account" conveniences they take for granted when trolling their favorite shopping, banking and dating sites. E-government innovators will have a hard time emulating those practices if they can't see them in action.

Addressing legitimate security, productivity and public relations concerns requires new approaches. Agencies need to develop more flexible Internet use guidelines, enforced by a combination of systematic and random monitoring of online activity and threats. Employees need mandatory online security training and productivity goals that focus more on specific accomplishments than on how they spend their time. But simply blocking access to various corners of the Web is becoming futile, especially as personal BlackBerrys, iPhones and other increasingly common mobile devices make keeping the greater Internet out of the workplace more difficult.

Gillispie, the Iowa CIO, also points out that government leaders need to examine their Internet use policies with an eye toward the "next generation of workers," many of whom easily alt-tab between the professional and personal sides of their active online lives.

Appealing to those workers, and building the online services they and their peers expect, means the days of trying to protect government networks with virtual moats are coming to an end.

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