Public goods, personal use

The Office of Personnel Management recently made public its policy of permitting

limited personal use of government office equipment by OPM employees. This

policy governs equipment such as personal computers and related hardware,

software, Internet services, e-mail and office supplies.

OPM has encouraged other agencies to adopt its policy and says its intent

is to provide a professional and supportive work environment while assuring

taxpayers that their tax dollars will be spent wisely. By authorizing limited

personal use of government equipment, OPM assumes that its employees are

"responsible individuals, capable of balancing this privilege with the expectations

of American taxpayers."

Let's hope OPM's assumption is correct — although the recent disclosure

that employees in the Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector

general's office were using government computers to access pornographic

sites raises serious questions.

Under OPM's policy, employees may use office equipment only for authorized

purposes. "Limited personal use" is authorized under the following conditions:

* If it involves minimal expense to government.

* If it does not reduce productivity or interfere with the employee's

official duties or the official duties of others.

* If the equipment is authorized for the employee's job. Equipment

for which an employee does not have authorization is not available for

personal use.

Managers may further restrict personal use based on the needs of the

office or problems with inappropriate use. And any use of government equipment

is subject to monitoring. Employees are also cautioned that when they use

government equipment after hours for personal reasons, they should make

it apparent that their use is personal.

OPM employees are given a laundry list of inappropriate uses of government

equipment, and accessing pornographic sites is one of them. Other examples

include using equipment for commercial purposes; engaging in outside fund-

raising activities; and creating, copying or transmitting any material that

is illegal or offensive to fellow employees or to the public.

Although the OPM policy seems reasonable on the surface, it may be impossible

to enforce. How do you decide what material is offensive to other employees?

OPM's policy provides for punitive actions ranging from counseling to

removal from an agency. But because supervisors can establish their own

criteria, practices might be forbidden by one supervisor and authorized

by another within the same agency.

This policy statement is a can of worms and will lead to endless disputes.

The simplest approach is to not allow personal use of government equipment,

even after regular working hours.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus

column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at


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