Blogger power

Mad as hell, Doug Roberts blogs about his employer, Los Alamos lab

LANL: The Real Story blog

Last December, Doug Roberts, a software engineer at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory, was driving down Interstate 25 from Albuquerque when he pulled into Arby's, a fast-food restaurant. He was frustrated and unhappy.

The preceding months at the laboratory had been difficult. Peter Nanos, the lab's director, temporarily shut down lab operations last July so he could investigate computer security and safety problems. Lab employees who were unhappy about the shutdown and critical of the director discovered they couldn't get their letters published in the lab's electronic Daily Newsbulletin, which had canceled its readers' forum. A local community newspaper was accepting letters from Los Alamos employees, but Roberts and others couldn't get the feedback they wanted through the local newspaper.

Arby's, where Roberts had stopped to eat, was advertising free wireless Internet service. Roberts remembers he ordered a salad, opened his laptop computer and, in two hours, created a Web log called "LANL: The Real Story." He seeded the blog with letters that the Daily Newsbulletin had rejected.

Roberts' blog quickly became popular with his colleagues and the national media. Lab employees could post complaints anonymously, describe their experiences and offer suggestions to managers without fear of reprisal.

Some of Roberts' colleagues have suggested that the blog might have hastened Nanos' resignation as director three months ago. Roberts said that's impossible to prove. But as recently as April 1, Nanos was once again the subject of an anonymous posting on the blog:

"I cannot conceive of any scenario in which Nanos will be looked back on favorably," the blogger writes. "Had he been more of a defender of the virtues of the laboratory and less critical and more supportive of the [thousands] who are trying to get products out the door, safely, securely, on time and on budget, we wouldn't be in this programmatic meltdown and morale wasteland."

Roberts said he welcomes postings from lab managers. The blog has received more than 1.2 million hits so far, he said.

Statistics on the extent of public-employee blogging are scarce. Few government policies address the issue of employees using personal blogs to write about their workplaces. "There is not a governmentwide policy on blogging by federal employees," said a federal official who has knowledge of government human resources issues but asked not to be identified.

Roberts said he blogs on his own time using his own computer. He had some sleepless nights when he feared reprisals for creating the blog, but he said he has never received any pressure from lab managers to shut it down.

Others say companies are developing policies or guidelines on blogging. Although it is a new phenomenon, it shares similarities with electronic message boards and with old-fashioned water-cooler gossip. The difference is that blogs let people express themselves in a format that potentially millions of people can read, said Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney at the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation. The organization has developed a guide to bloggers' rights.

A former chief information officer for Utah, Phil Windley, had different reasons than Roberts for starting a blog while he was working for the state. Windley kept his blog on a private server, but he used government equipment to post to it during work hours.

He said blogging proved to be a productive way to "get my thoughts to a pretty scattered workforce ... and to speak for myself instead of letting the grapevine speak for me." Windley encourages other Utah state government employees to blog, and he knows about a half-dozen current and former government employees in other states who maintain blogs.

Windley avoided creating a specific policy on blogging during his tenure, but he said state officials at some point will need to create written policies.

Roberts, who left the Los Alamos lab about a month ago to return to the private sector, still works part-time at the lab as an associate. He spends about two hours a day maintaining the blog with help from a retired co-worker.

Roberts said he can't point to significant improvements in the lab's management, but he describes the new director, Robert Kuckuck, as "a refreshing change in personality at least."

Roberts said he keeps up the blog, which now has a broader focus than when he started it, because it provides a great venue for workplace discourse. He added that organizations shouldn't discourage blogging.

"Any organization that cannot withstand the rigors that an open-venue discussion provides probably has serious flaws in it somewhere and should probably take a good close look at its operations and problems," he said.

Energy blogger: Keeping it professional

As a lab employee, Doug Roberts created a Web log, "LANL: The Real Story," so he and his co-workers could lob criticism at the highest-level managers of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Roberts' rule for the blog is simple: "Keep it professional."

By that, he means:

  • No racism.
  • No sexism.
  • No personal attacks.
  • Stay on topic.
  • Divulge nothing classified.
  • Keep profanity in check.
  • Use complete sentences.
  • Use a spell checker.

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