Army stumbles on blogging policy

Federal agencies just starting to grasp how to manage social networking technologies

The Army set off a battle in the blogosphere last week with a revised policy that would require service members to seek official approval of all public Internet postings, such as Web logs.

The Army has since backed off from what many experts say was a restrictive and unworkable policy, but its actions left unanswered a larger question: Is the government equipped to deal with a growing wave of employees and contractors who want to express their opinions in a public forum? Most observers say agencies have barely begun to understand the challenges of blogging.

The General Services Administration is in the process of developing criteria for a future blog on the federal government’s Web portal, USA.gov, said Martha Dorris, deputy associate administrator of GSA’s Office of Citizen Services and Communications. “Neither is ready at this time. But when it is, we will share with other agencies.”

Another agency, the Government Accountability Office, has drafted an updated code of ethics that expands its policy on employees speaking publicly. GAO’s existing policy instructs employees not to discuss anything that isn’t public. A GAO spokeswoman said the draft guidance expands those requirements to blogs and other Web posts.

At the National Weather Service, officials published a policy in May 2006, “Information Technology Technical and Content Requirements for Internet Servers RSS Feed Requirements and Specifications,” that addresses blogging. NWS’ policy requires employee blogs to be “accurate, fair, unbiased and reflect positively” on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NWS. Topics must be reviewed by managers to ensure that they fit the organization’s mission.

Even organizations that sponsor public blogs have restrictions. The Library of Congress recently started a blog, with a disclaimer that states, “This blog does not represent official Library of Congress communications.”

Experts say the Army’s mistake — and one other agencies should avoid — is requiring, or even giving the impression of requiring, prior approval before posting. The Army stepped back on the prior approval language by publishing a fact sheet to clarify its position on blogging. That position is that service members should inform their supervisors of their intent to blog or post a comment and that they should receive training from the operations security officer before posting online.

“The regulation was clumsily drafted, and it was not well thought out,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy. “The fact sheet is a much more moderate approach, and I think that it’s the right way to go.”

In its fact sheet, published May 3, the Army clarified its policy, which does not require that every blog post or update be monitored or first approved by an immediate supervisor and operations security officer. The Army, it states, simply wants soldiers to receive guidance and awareness training from a security officer before posting to a blog.
Army spokesman Ray Brus said the service’s intent was never to restrict soldiers’ First Amendment rights. It was to remind them of the importance of operational security.

1105 Government Information Group senior writer Patience Wait contributed to this story.
Army clears the blogging airIn an attempt to quell the rising firestorm over its revised policy on soldiers, families or contractors posting information online, the Army released a fact sheet May 3 to clarify its regulations.

The Army wants soldiers, civilians, contractors and family members to:
  • Discuss their plans to start a blog with their immediate supervisor as a matter of situational awareness only.
  • Receive guidance and awareness training by their Operations Security officer before posting online.
The service does not require them to seek permission:
  • To send personal e-mails.
  • If their blog is not military related or doesn’t use government computers to post online.
— Jason Miller

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