For the last time…stop blocking!

There was all sorts of excitement yesterday with the news that yet another Council has reacted to the fact that some of their staff spend some of their time using social networks.

This from Arun on LocalGov.co.uk:

Staff at Portsmouth City Council have been banned from using social networking sites after a local paper investigation revealed they spent up to 572 hours a month on Facebook.

The Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Portsmouth paper, The News, discovered that on average the council’s 4,500 staff spent 413 hours on Facebook per month.

Usage peaked in July when 572 hours – equivalent to 71 working days – were spent on the site.

Following the investigation council chief executive David Williams issued a council-wide ban on all social networking sites.

‘We intend to restrict Internet access to social networking sites more than at present for non-business use,’ he said.

‘Any member of staff may, under this revised policy, make a business case to have these sites unblocked.

Sigh. It must have been a slow news day, as even the BBC reported on it – and of course they phoned up those level headed folk at Taxpayers’ Alliance for a quote. Double sigh.

The approach taken by the Council in this instance is similar to action taken by other local authorities in response to the growth in the use of social networking sites across local government. Such responses are needlessly risk-averse, and threaten these organisations’ ability to use online technology to innovate.

Putting aside the fact that, on an individual basis, the time spent on social networking sites was negligible anyway, the mistake that these councils are making is to treat online interaction differently from any other form of behaviour.

Were a member of staff found to be spending working time reading a newspaper at their desk, for example, would newspapers be banned from council offices? I doubt it.

When members of staff are found to be spending lots of time sending personal emails, is the facility removed from everyone who works there? Nope.

The same could be said of chat amongst staff, whether around the water cooler, or at desks. No organisation in their right minds would attempt to enforce a ban on talking in the office.

If a member of staff is wasting time on the internet, whether on social networks or any other site, then they should of course be disciplined, but using the same code of conduct that another other time wasting incident would employ. There is nothing new about this, except for jumping on a new piece of technology and inventing new rules for it – just because it is different.

This is a management issue, and requires a management response, not a technological one. There are no sensible reasons for blocking these websites, it is a simple case of organisations both not trusting their staff to manage their time effectively and not trusting managers to manage properly.

And I haven’t even mentioned how using social networks in the workplace can actually a) increase productivity; b) be used to do interesting engagement stuff with citizens; c) make an organisation seem like the sort of place a normal person might want to work, rather than some weird, cut-off, luddite backwater.

Sharon has written a good account of this on her blog, and Shel has picked it up in the States.

9 thoughts on “For the last time…stop blocking!”

  1. Hear hear.

    It’s an abdication of responsibility by management. If people aren’t doing their jobs or achieving their targets, fair enough, discipline them. If you find out that part of the reason for that is that they’re on the internet when they should be working, then impose individual sanctions on them and monitor them more closely. But to assume, based on bald usage stats, that this must be having some (unquantified) effect on productivity and to blanket-ban it on that basis is just plain daft, and it’s an easy cop-out for managers who haven’t got a proper handle on their staff’s work or behaviour.

  2. Agree with Nick. Management by throttling network traffic.

    – lazy
    – backward thinking
    – mushroom management

    So depressing to see history repeating itself. Don’t you remember hearing the same scaremongering things about solitaire, email, and then internet access?

    In light of other conversations today about “Digital Stream Management”
    ( http://paulcanning.blogspot.com/2009/09/local-government-needs-digital-stream.html “Which councils will be first?” ) it throws into high relief the nature of the clout that these folk need to be endowed with to climb these mountains … and those echelons of LG management do not have the skills to deliver.

    e.g. If any council wants to seriously use Twitter as a means of communication with the world then they need to think about 24/7 cover – even if it is just someone on another continent saying soothing words and entering data into a todo list.

    Here’s a more radical view, If you’ve got a spare hour then I urge you to watch this presentation by Paul Boag “10 harsh truths about institutional websites”

    http://boagworld.com/conferences/case

    Just about every time he mentions HE (Higher Eductation) you can substitute LG

    When he mentions “the consultants” sit yourself in that role and then tell me that’s doable as an employee. No mean feat.

  3. I don’t really think you get the point of why the ban access to social sites, chat, YouTube and so on.

    A workplace is where you go to work, not mess about keeping up with friends or in the case of Facebook, hundreds of people you don’t really know whilst your supposed to be doing a job. One of the reasons is, that employees do spend a lot of time browsing sites and using Facebook, But for example; You have a company with 1500 employees. Say 800 of those people sneak online to go on Facebook or click a YouTube or joke link in their email. Studies prove that 10 mins of every hour is spent checking these sites and external (or even silly internal email banter) by each employee. So work it out. Say the standard hourly rate is £9 per hour. 8 hours per day, that would be about 80 mins a day wasted messing about online instead of working. So its over £9 wasted by that employee. 9 x 800 = £7200. Now Multiply this by 12 months and the company loses over £374.000 each year worth of productivity. That’s over a quarter of a Million Pounds.

    Especially in Government where they are supposed to be processing your council tax application (or whatever), someone is facebooking. Not only that, some people don’t care what they say either and post all sorts of derogatory info like, “Oh, Lovely Monday, back to crappy work today”… Don’t they know that Employers read this stuff?

    You are also right. Social Networking can be really good for business, If done correctly, and you would have a team that deals with this, or a couple of employees that do the posting. Not three quarters of the workplace.

    I could go on with issues, as this is just one example. But from an employers point of view, they are seeing losses due to misuse of the companies Internet and Email policy. If it was your business and you had a quarter of a million loss each year due to staff messing about, Im sure you would block these sites too.

    Social Media these days is becoming the norm, and for some addictive. What happened to just taking a break or going out for lunch.

  4. Think about it this way, Michael: social technology has become an integral part of how we connect with people and organise both our work and personal lives (and increasingly the two overlap). Now say it takes me five minutes to arrange to get the details of an industry event on Facebook, by checking the details on the event page. If Facebook is blocked, I’ll have to make a series of phone calls instead, which will likely take me ten minutes or longer. Which is better value for the taxpayer?

    In the case of Portsmouth, access to Facebook was permitted in breaks anyway, which is time the taxpayers *aren’t even paying for*.

    The real impact is on employee engagement. If I, as an employee, feel that my employer is being unreasonable and treating me like a child, I’ll be less inclined to make any extra effort, and will piss off at five on the dot. On the other hand, if I feel my employer is treating me like an adult, I’ll reciprocate by staying a little later, or being more productive.

    For instance my manager is very reasonable about leaving early if I have to be somewhere after work as I have a long commute. In return for his flexibility, I am flexible too – indeed, I worked several weeks’ worth of unpaid overtime last year. That’s where the real value for taxpayers is, not shortsighted bans over the odd five minutes spent on Facebook.

    Today’s council waste story is about workers in Rochdale getting additional allowances for the time taken to reach the upper floors of their building (see http://bit.ly/3ydSKG ). That’s absurd, I agree, but I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of these. It can’t be long before the Taxpayers Alliance put in an FOI request demanding to know how much time council workers spend going for a poo on taxpayers’ money.

  5. Hi Sharon, thanks for the response.

    I, more than most, know how Social Technology has impact on today’s world as I deal with its impacts almost on a daily basis. Your a 100% right. Online life and Real Life do over lap, but my post above was just to point out one of the reasons why councils; other organisations, and businesses block certain sites.

    If a company has events or any other type of interaction with its customers, then as mentioned above, a team would be dedicated to managing this. Sites can be blocked but access be granted to users through a Group Policy, proxy server or for smaller companies by using the .hosts file. I’m not saying access should be blocked permanently but misuse must be addressed.

    It’s not about treating employees as a child. Most decent companies give you a contract and this contract will outline the companies policies regarding Internet and Email usage or its outlined in a Staff Handbook. Almost every companies employees abuse this. But its also down to the company to enforce its policies, monitor internet usage too. Finding a happy medium is hard but again, its a place of work, not play. You don’t own the computers there or pay the internet connection fees.

    If employees could be trusted enough not to misuse the Internet/Email policies then I’m sure access would be restored. Can you tell me that in every job you have had where computers were a big part of your job, that you never ‘quickly’ logged online or checked personal mail?

    You mention a lot about tax payers. If companies didn’t loose massive amounts of money due to misuse, it would help a little in Taxes. Why do taxes go up? The economy for one, but businesses are increasingly borrowing money and if they save the thousands that are wasted by people not working (for whatever reason, being Internet or hanging around the water cooler (which also has its dangers for social engineering http://www.amazon.com/Enemy-Water-Cooler-Enterprise-Countermeasures/dp/1597491292 ) – I’m not shitting on anyone’s parade, and I would like to see people being able to have the freedom to browse what they like (within reason) nor am I taking sides.

    Companies loose millions/billions a year through IT. How do you know that the person who lost 25,000 peoples details from the Child Benefit database was not on Facebook, just before they put those details on disk?

    IT in Government sucks. It really does. Most council library’s have only been upgraded from Windows 2000 to Windows XP in the last few years, the DSS also has issues because their software was poorly written and was not compatible with later Windows systems and Barclays Bank in some branches STILL use Windows 2000 (would you trust your money with a bank that has an operating system thats almost 11 years old with no supported security patches?) – My point here is that IT in Government is poor and more needs to be done to monitor and enforce the employers policies. Action should be taken for anyone misusing them.

    I’m not looking for a 1984 George Orwell state; I just want to be able to see employers trust their employees and employees not take the piss. Use the Internet on your lunch, or scheduled breaks. Not really much to ask. They can then use the net as much as they like when they go home. And if someone feels like they are being treated like a child, then that’s up to them. If you don’t like it, leave. Go get another job where you can browse all you like. I guarantee the company won’t be there long or it wont take them too much time to realise your performance sucks.

    Trust goes a long way.

    If your employer is fine with you having 5 mins here and there then that’s fine if you work in a small company, but if not, they are either really naive and don’t realise the repercussions or are indeed themselves breaching company policy. What does your contract say about internet use?

    I guess our minds work differently – You see this as an end user, I see this from both sides. I’ve seen the effects that misuse has on companies, through theft, crime, net/email usage and companies going out of business because employees take it upon themselves to represent the company in a bad way. Both sides need to reach a happy medium and stick to it. But this debate will keep going and going until one side wins, and guess which side that will be. Hello Big Brother.

  6. That’s precisely the point: Portsmouth did have a policy of allowing such use in breaks. When they came to respond to the FOI request,though, they couldn’t differentiate between breaktime use and worktime use, so the headline figure of five to six minutes a month includes both. So Plymouth’s ban is a knee-jerk response to a problem that possibly doesn’t even exist.

    Yes, trust goes a long way. Banning from the centre, however, implies you neither trust your employees to work, nor your managers to manage.

  7. “Were a member of staff found to be spending working time reading a newspaper at their desk, for example, would newspapers be banned from council offices? I doubt it.”

    Sorry, Dave, I don’t share your optimism there! I think the main reason some workplaces still have access to personal emails is because there are tribunal cases supporting personal communications being allowed except in exceptional circumstances, if I recall correctly. You can set a policy and give warnings for breaches of that policy, but surely you shouldn’t flat-out ban it?

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