GSA rethinks IT personal use

A governmentwide policy under development at the General Services Administration would loosen a hodgepodge of existing policies governing federal employees' personal use of government office equipment, including computers.

According to the draft policy, federal employees could use electronic equipment at work, such as fax machines, the Internet and e-mail, if the use involves "minimal expense to the government and does not interfere with government business."

Employees occasionally could use government equipment for personal use during their own time, not during work hours, and the privilege may be revoked or limited at any time by agency managers, according to the draft.

"People are finding that it costs the government much more money in lost time and productivity [to have a restrictive policy] than they paid to let people use the government equipment," said Richard Eisinger, senior executive officer at the Social Security Administration.

Every federal agency has developed its own policy governing the personal use of government equipment. Many of the policies, such as those in place at the departments of Defense, Commerce and Transportation, are similar to the GSA draft policy. But the policies are specifically tailored for each agency, and no legislation serves as a definitive guide, which forces many managers and employees to interpret the policies.

SSA found that employees' increasing personal use of the Internet required the agency to revisit its policy, Eisinger said. "It was the use of the Internet that drove everything," he said.

SSA also found that a policy restricting personal phone use to just medical emergencies resulted in higher costs for the agency. The cost of an employee's time to find a pay phone to make a 30-second call is more than the call would cost SSA if the call were made on the employee's desk phone. "It just made no sense since there is no charge to the government if I make a local call, and we knew people were doing it anyway," Eisinger said.

SSA drafted a model personal-use policy and submitted it to the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management and GSA, which based the draft policy, the "Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch," on SSA's model. GSA's Emerging Information Technology Policies Division last week presented the draft policy to a working group formed by the CIO Council for the council's input.

Rich Kellett, director of GSA's Emerging Information Technology Policies Division, said that while agencies for a long time have disagreed on the personal-use policy for government telephones, managers now are beginning to take into account today's work environment. For example, the policy must take into account the government's struggle to recruit and retain quality employees, he said.

"There's some kind of reasonable accommodation that's necessary for a functioning employee in the government," Kellett said. "People do have to call home on the phone sometimes. That same kind of logic is carrying over to the Internet.

"Here's a place to start," Kellett said. "[Agency managers] need to modify it as [they] see fit. Some agencies are going to say no personal use because they're peaked out on bandwidth," and personal use would make access to the Internet for work reasons that much slower.

A governmentwide policy could give an individual agency's personal-use policy more authority because GSA and the CIO Council are backing up the policy, said J. Timothy Sprehe, president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C.

In addition, the policy would give federal employees some consistency. "Executive branch employees should be treated equitably without regard to which agency employs them," according to the draft. "They can expect that privileges extended to them will be extended in a similar manner to other executive branch employees, to the extent that agency resources permit."

"We thought it would make sense to have a model," Eisinger said. "The idea was not to force people to use this exact policy.... We recognize that these technologies are becoming more and more available, and giving agencies a way to manage employees' use is necessary."

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