Personal-use policy a recipe for disaster

A new policy recommendation made by the CIO Council would give federal employees greater liberty to use computers and other equipment for personal reasons but also could open the door to disputes between employees and management.

The recommendation, issued March 10, would allow federal workers to use government office equipment for non-government purposes "when such use involves minimal additional expense to the government, is performed on the employee's nonwork time, does not interfere with the mission or operations of a department or agency and does not violate the standards of ethical conduct for employees of the executive branch."

The rationale for this policy change is commendable. The CIO Council believes that giving employees limited personal use of office equipment will enhance the quality of the workplace and help retain valued workers.

But the policy could create confusion. For example, it would allow you to come to the office after work hours and use your computer to access Internet sites. If the sites you visited were a bit tawdry, you wouldn't run afoul of this policy unless someone saw what you did and reported it to your supervisor. Even then, it might not be clear whether you actually had violated the regulations.

The only way a supervisor could wiggle out of such a dilemma would be to nix this kind of use of government resources—which the CIO Council recommendation spells out as a possibility. The problem is that it doesn't say under what circumstances a supervisor can revoke this privilege. Agency supervisors could find themselves entangled in grievances, appeals and lawsuits stemming from contested revocations.The recommendation also allows agency officials to apply this policy to contractor personnel, interns and other non-government employees. Now there's a can of worms if I ever saw one.

The CIO Council defined government office equipment as personal computers and related peripheral equipment and software, library resources, telephones, facsimile machines, photocopiers, office supplies, Internet connectivity and access to Internet services, and e-mail. To comply with this recommendation, an employee's personal use of this equipment would be limited to situations that would not result in additional expense to the government other than normal wear and tear.

"Minimal additional expenses," according to the recommendation, would allow for making a few photocopies, using a computer printer to print out a few pages, making occasional brief personal phone calls, sending personal e-mail messages once in a while or using the Internet sparingly for personal reasons.

When I worked for Uncle Sam, you couldn't use a copy machine for personal use. Many employees did anyway, but at least they knew what would happen if they got caught. That made sense then and still does. Your office shouldn't be where you make photocopies, send personal e-mail or print personal items on your printer.

Executive-branch employees are prohibited specifically from using government office equipment to maintain or support a personal private business. But the CIO Council recommendation says employees should be allowed to make limited use of government office equipment to check their Thrift Savings Plan and—get this—"other personal investments or to seek employment."

In addition, the recommendation says, "Personal use must not result in loss of employee productivity or interference with official duties." I question how easy it would be to prove the effect that personal use of equipment might have on someone's productivity.

It appears the only part of this recommendation that was drafted intelligently is the section that describes what employees can't do. There is a whole laundry list of don'ts. Employees are expected to refrain from using government office equipment for activities that are "inappropriate." These inappropriate uses include activities that could cause congestion, delay or disruption of service to any government system or equipment (sending things such as electronic greeting cards and video file attachments); using government systems to gain unauthorized access to other systems; sending chain letters; activities that are illegal, inappropriate or offensive to fellow employees or the public (basically anything commonly deemed politically incorrect); and any outside fund-raising activity, product endorsement, lobbying activity or partisan political action.

The prohibition against using government property in ways that are offensive to fellow employees or to the public is well-intentioned but totally unworkable because the definitions of sensitive or offensive material are extremely fuzzy. I guarantee that if this recommendation is implemented, supervisors will be spending much of their time embroiled in disputes as to whether a subordinate violated the rules.

--Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who contributes regularly to Federal Computer Week.

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