The pipe problem

PipesAt Public Sector Online (which Elaine did a marvellous job of writing up on the LP blog) last Monday, the question was asked – as it often is at these events – what could be done about the fact that the majority of folk working in government, access to the common social websites is blocked.

Cue nods around the room. It’s still an issue, despite the fact that almost every sensible person one talks to says that blocking isn’t the thing to do.

What are the reasons for the blocking? I think there are three main ones. The first two are straw men, to be honest. The third is more troubling and difficult to get around.

1. Staff will waste time

I don’t think I need to spend too much time on this one, as every reader of this blog surely knows that this is a management issue and not a technology one. If people want to waste time, they’ll find a way; and ever organisation already has policy and process to manage this and stop it happening.

2. Information security and risk of virus infection etc

Two parts to this. Firstly that using social web sites, whether for communication or collaboration, increases the likelihood of losing sensitive information. I’ve heard of people in councils being blocked from Slideshare for this very reason. Imagine that! Someone accidentally creating a powerpoint deck full of confidential data, and then deciding that they should publish it publicly on Slideshare!

This is unfathomably moronic, not least because of course there have been far more instances of people losing or leaking paper files, and nobody as far as I am aware has banned the use of those. It’s an education thing, innit?

Likewise the virus issue. People clicking dodgy links is the main problem here, and that’s as likely to happen via email as anything else. Nobody blocks email (shame). Instead, educate people not to click dodgy links. Easy.

3. The pipe isn’t big enough

This is the real issue I think. I have had lots of conversations with IT folk in public sector organisations who simply state that if someone in the organisation watches a video on YouTube, then that’s the network down for pretty much everyone else.

We’ve all been there – who hasn’t tried to access the web at a lunchtime, only for it to be unusably slow?

I can’t help but think that this is one of the main reasons behind organisations blocking access to interesting websites. Perhaps the other two reasons are just covering up the fact that many government organisations have infrastructure that really isn’t fit for purpose?

I honestly don’t know and I also don’t know how expensive a situation this sort of thing is to resolve, or how much of a priority it would be to fix in these austere times.

Credit: photo by Ozh.

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Dave Briggs

I'm an experienced senior manager in digital and ICT, looking for interim engagements to modernise technology teams to help organisations transform.

6 thoughts on “The pipe problem”

  1. the main problem is the fact that we are trying to lead the world in a digital age but we only have access to the internet through an aging copper phone network. Until we have fibre to each and every government office, home and business we are going nowhere. Why won’t policy makers see this? People need fat pipes, not a drip from a tap that suffers from drought at peak times. Other countries are laying fibre by the mile – they don’t have our legacy infrastructure. We are getting left behind.
    chris

  2. Good post
    From an organisational point of view the pipe is an issue but again isn’t insurmountable. You can apply what is called Quality of Service across a network to ensure that essential traffic and data always have enough capacity to get through. We simply need to classify this new data in a similar way against our current data. The challenge is actually implementing this but that is just as much of a challenge as the other two which might not be technical and more cultural.

    Outside of course, we need better connectivity – say no more.

  3. You won’t get any argument from me on point 3, but I have a few issues with the other two points.

    With regard to wasting time. It is true that people who want to waste time will find ways to do it, but that isn’t a reason to make it easy for them to do so. You can set up policies, but they need to be policed; blocking sites reduces the effort necessary to do this. Creating business inefficiency by blocking sites that are useful to staff is stupid though. I’ve seen this a number of times.

    For information security you seem to only talk about situations where the release is accidental. What about the very real possibility of deliberate dissemination? Slideshare would work very well as a way of passing credit card or other personal data. I agree that the same could be done with paper but paper is often a requirement to work, access to general internet sites isn’t.

    I work in the call centre industry and some organisations go to great lengths to control the confidential data that they hold. I know of sites where paper is also banned. This often isn’t practical and in these cases numbered and watermarked sheets are often used. A staff member has to hand in their existing sheets for destruction before they can be issued with new ones. It often feels like overkill, but high profile data losses have made companies step up their procedures in an effort to prevent issues or, at the very least, to cover their backs when something goes wrong

  4. I think underlying all of these is something more intangible – the rationalisation may be ‘security’ but what is at the heart I feel is control. This may be a real anxiety – we can get sued & if we can’t prove we were in control of every aspect we’ll be liable. It is also just habit of IT staff – if in doubt say no, and make sure you retain control. There are also elements of professional identity wrapped up in this – if people are using all this external free services, what do we do?

  5. I’ve worked in a few public sector organisations, and my work has involved introducing social media-based programs. My current employer, who is awesome, doesn’t block anything, all others have blocked at least some sites.

    In my experience, IT departments are hostile to social media because they don’t want the capacity increase. It’s got nothing to do with time-wasting really, but it gets justified as such, and you can end up with a whole layer of middle management completely convinced that everyone will down tools the instant they can access FB from their workstation.
    Also in my experience, the capacity `problem’ is what the organisation wants to pay for, not what is actually available. This does baffle me a little, because capacity is relatively cheap compared with other large organisation infrastructure expenses.

    As high-bandwidth activity becomes more common, it also gets harder to restrict it solely by blocking FB; YouTube and Gmail. (I wonder how many departments networks fell over during the PM’s swearing in, from ppl watching the ABC).

    It is really important that professionals working in social media areas – who need staff to have more access to social media – understand that it is often the pipe that is the real issue. Find out what capacity your organisation has, how much it increases by per year, and whether that is restricted by the network technology (which can be upgraded!) or simply by what amount is paid for each year. If you can secure funding for extra capacity connected to your project, you might be surprised by how quickly other opposition melts away…

  6. well said Cassie.
    Also another point to be made is if the workforce want to access social media they will probably be doing it on smartphones anyway?

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