The problem

Government of Canada employees are blocked from the websites they need: to conduct the business of government, gather information relevant to their duties and develop expertise. This limitation damages the positive work environment, compromises productivity, and diminishes their capacity to enhance services for the benefit of citizens, businesses, taxpayers and employees.

Background

Access to the Internet is important for employees of any workplace, especially as social networking and  better collaboration becomes vitally necessary for employees.  Many public servants are blocked from web 2.0 sites, preventing them from connecting, collaborating, accessing information and sharing knowledge. If government departments want to get on-board with Web 2.0, they need to start by unblocking access to Web 2.0.

Not to say the blocking of the Internet is without merit. During the mid-nineties, a time of economic uncertainty and ever-increasing public cynicism on the federal public service, IM/IT shops in Government Departments scrambled to sustain an already fragile infrastructure against threats of disclosures and leaking of confidential documents. Adding fuel to the fire are time wasting workers without Internet access at home and real security threats of phishing and viruses.

It’s a common problem

The problem employees have with corporate-blocked Internet is a common one in many organisations. @ChristopherHyne tweeted me this Globe & Mail article about Internet blocking as a hindrance to work, highlighting the blurring line between work and personal life. It’s a good article, offering solace that the issue is pervasive across many organisations, but also focusing on how organisations need to better adapt to the realities of the needs and demands of the current workforce to remain competitive.

I recall how daily I to faced the perils of blocked access to the sites I desired, needed, required. The day our Deputy Minister blocked Facebook, the tempered shock rippled out in in-person whispers of discontent in the halls. Employees knew each other less while becoming more detached from their department. I was blocked from getting MP3 podcasts of my own Deputy Minister speeches, speeches about the very work I was involved with. My days were interrupted by punctuated visits to the Internet Cafe across the street as I made evening plans and corresponded with school. Work-life balance was in perpetual upset as I was segmented into each group between my personal time and my time at work.

Now being in an agency with unblocked Internet, I can’t fathom joining a department that blocks access. I now feel more engaged to my work, I’m more productive accessing the tools and people I network with, and am able to better balance work and life without my Deputy Head trying to balance (or block) it for me. Intended or not, unblocked Internet helps me do my work, and helps us all collaborate. I am more engaged to my work having the access to the sites that increase my productivity. Yet still I run into walls when I can’t collaborate with others, when either I am showing content on a site,  accessing material or communicate via video.

It’s hard to nail down the central reasons for blocking the net. The reasons I’ve heard vary widely (sometimes in the same conversation!). I’ll try to list them here:

  • IT security: Public Servants can’t access sites that may compromise the critical network;
  • Information Management: Blocking websites keeps employees from unauthorised sharing of confidential and privileged information;
  • Productivity: Employees will waste time on these sites, website access needs to be authorised;
  • IT infrastructure: The system can’t support employees using too much bandwidth by viewing video.

The rest come under the broad umbrella of unauthorised use, Public Values & Ethics, and Conflict of Interest:

  • Irrelevant/inappropriate: Some sites are considered irrelevant or inappropriate for employees to access; i.e.: blogs, adult content;
  • Censorship: Public servants can’t be communicating on websites at work (blogs, social networks);

No more lowest-common-denominator

I don’t know what to make of these reasons. They’re difficult to argue against. Perhaps the overlying issue is one of trust (a serious issue in the Government that I’d like to see in more discussions on PS Renewal), perhaps it’s infrastructure – but having the employees pay the price in the interim by blocking the Internet (especially over 10 years and running now) isn’t the solution.

If you have  legitimate business needs, your access to the Internet ought not be restricted by the lowest-common-denominator: the profile of the common user in the department shouldn’t be determined by the activities Joe Six-Pack who watches videos of Sarah Palin, Tim who plays Pong Wars and Sally who loves to download glitterfied-smileys & sunset screensavers (all who are real people from my past. Well, except for Joe Six-Pack). The activities of those users are not network or IT issues, but HR issues - as I stated last week’s post – the government (Public Service Commission) needs to make computer skills and knowledge of the Internet requirements for any analysis position. Working is to computers what thinking is to writing.

I was curious how many in the government were facing this problem, so I created a page on the Government of Canada wiki GCPEDIA titled “Internet Access Blocking” and sent the link around (if you’re in the Government of Canada, you can see the page here). Without sharing the details that GCPEDIA users have contributed, I can say that many sites are blocked across the departments across the government. For some actually this really isn’t surprising.

The policies

So what can we do? Well I checked the policies. Among many, I found 2 important ones,  the first one governs the use of Internet in the Government of Canada (“Policy on the Use of Electronic Networks“) which, by the way, I am surprised to see is over 10 years old (February 12, 1998).  The policy, as I read it, is a good one that has lasted the test of time; it recognises the importance of effective access to “electronic networks” (the intertubes) and reasonable conditions governing common-sense use of the Internet, relying on departments to determine acceptable Internet access. I couldn’t find conditions that substantiate the blocking of Internet.

The other policy, the “Policy on Management of Information Technology” (2003) is quite reasonable as well: says to avoid overlap in IT projects, measure their performance, comply with other policies, and monitor employee use.   I didn’t find anything in the policies about how the Internet needed to be blocked, or statements about blocking it for personal use (just that these were up to Department heads).

In fact, the policies help you.

In my opening problem paragraph, statements were actually lifted from the policies.  For example:

The Policy on the Use of Electronic Networks states:

“The Treasury Board encourages authorized individuals to use electronic networks to conduct the business of government, to communicate with other authorized individuals and with the public, to gather information relevant to their duties, and to develop expertise in using such networks.”

The Policy on Management of Information Technology states:

“Information technology is an essential component of the government’s strategy to address challenges of increasing productivity and enhancing services to the public for the benefit of citizens, businesses, taxpayers and employees.

I’m actually convinced that the TBS policies don’t block access; it’s restrictions from the department, exerted through Deputy heads’ (continuing) implementation of these policies because ”Deputy heads have a responsibility to put in place policies and practices that promote the appropriate use of electronic networks… consistent with the operational needs of the workplace”.

Solution

For my proposed solution/tips, stay tuned for my post next week (this one’s already too long). If you have tips yourself, please provide in your comments and I’ll include them and your name in my post. I’ll give you kudos, I swear.

Besides, I needed time to find at least one person who’s done it. (Have you? Get in touch!)

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