BlackBerry handhelds keep feds in the loop with 'electronic leash'
Some people love their Research in Motion BlackBerrys. Some hate them. Still, countless federal employees think they must have one.
On Sept. 11, 2001, wireless personal digital assistants kept communications going long after landlines went down. Since then, PDAs have become mainstays. Once a luxury, handheld computers are a necessity in the federal workplace.
PDAs have changed the way people communicate and think about business. This is especially true of federal officials, to whom more than 150,000 BlackBerrys have been issued. Most importantly, they have changed how people work.
A BlackBerry is a cherished office assistant for many people. "It meshes very well with the way I communicate," said Charles Havekost, chief information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. "It leaves an audit trail."
On a typical day, Havekost boards the subway in Virginia to commute into Washington, D.C. He uses his BlackBerry until the train goes underground and he loses his wireless connection. He checks his e-mail, prioritizes his workload and decides what tasks to delegate. He completes plenty of work even before arriving at his office.
Because BlackBerrys connect people so efficiently with their offices, they probably should have "caution" stamped on them, critics say. Some have called handhelds electronic leashes because they keep people tethered to their jobs. Some workers call them CrackBerrys because they say they are so addictive.
For those reasons, Ken Bartee, president of McDonald Bradley, a government-
focused technology company, doesn't have a BlackBerry and doesn't want one.
"I have been a holdout," he said. "With e-mail access at work, home and on a laptop [computer] when traveling, I feel I have this requirement covered." People are easily caught up in e-mail, he said, and it begins intruding on more important work and personal relationships.
Intrusion is one thing, confusion is another. Many BlackBerry users say they have to read messages twice to decipher the shorthand on the miniature screen. Even then, messages can be misinterpreted.
"It is critical to be concise and clear so a message is clearly understood," said David Sidranksy, acting CIO at the U.S. Postal Service. "Occasionally, it is difficult to understand the intent of a message, and it requires either a telephone call or a follow-up e-mail message requesting clarification."
But most people, like Laurence Wolfe, say BlackBerrys make their jobs easier. Wolfe is CIO and chief technology officer at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, a small federal agency that monitors criminal offenders on parole in the Washington, D.C., area.
"BlackBerrys have greatly changed the way [information technology] does business in my agency by improving service delivery and decision-making," he said. The devices let IT managers rapidly share information with employees at field sites, improving the quality and timeliness of support.
In 2003, a few days before the Homeland Security Department came into existence, IT executives had a brief discussion about whether BlackBerrys would be a security risk or a productivity boon. They decided to issue BlackBerrys to DHS managers, and handheld computers quickly became part of the department's culture.
A BlackBerry is a crucial communications tool, said Lee Holcomb, chief technology officer at DHS. He has used a BlackBerry almost every day since the department was set up.
PDA users have developed a mode of communicating based on language shortcuts, he said, adding that BlackBerrys are not good tools for sending complex messages or resolving disagreements.
"In those cases, pick up a phone or meet face to face," Holcomb said. Many BlackBerry users agree that the device has limitations and that personal interaction is far more effective.
"Used effectively, [PDAs] can speed decisions up," said Marty Wagner, associate administrator for governmentwide policy at the General Services Administration. "Used ineffectively, it can leave people dithering."
If people are going to be effective in business, Wagner said, they need time to think. But the constant influx of e-mail messages can be distracting and take time away from decision-making.
"People are running faster and faster, but they feel they are running in place," he said. "The trick of using this technology effectively is to find ways to monitor what is going on while having the self-discipline to engage in things only when they are right for action."
Some people who carry BlackBerrys are linked to them around the clock. Roger Baker, former CIO at the Commerce Department and now vice president of federal/
civilian operations at General Dynamics Network Systems, leaves his BlackBerry in his briefcase when he gets home from work. But he checks his e-mail later in the evening.
All of that convenience has a downside, Baker said. "I'm addicted to my office, and it lets me get a fix on a very regular basis." His worst habit when it comes to BlackBerrys, he said, is checking e-mail when he is stopped in traffic.
Like Bartee, others are resisting the lure of the devices. Brett Bobley, CIO at the National Endowment for the Humanities, said he has opted not to use a BlackBerry.
"The way I see it, one of the CIO's principal jobs is to make sure that his staff is trained to handle any kind of a situation," he said. "If I'm so indispensable that I need to be in constant touch with the office, then I haven't done my job right."
"A cell phone is currently as far as I am willing to go," said George Bohlinger of Federal Management Systems.
Research in Motion officials said BlackBerrys are more than pocket-sized e-mail devices. Justice and Agriculture department officials, among others, use them to manage their work remotely, said Alan Panezic, director of the BlackBerry Solutions Group.
When a server goes down at the USDA, IT administrators are contacted on their BlackBerrys, he said. They can often fix the problem remotely. "It cuts the response time from hours to minutes," Panezic said. "And the agency is able to save salaries because it no longer has to have anyone on site to fix it."
Robert Otto also likes to stay connected using his BlackBerry. USPS' chief technology officer said his only regret is that he didn't have one years ago when his daughter used to drag him along on trips to the shopping mall.
Otto got his BlackBerry two years ago. "My daughter is 26 now," he said. But when she was younger, he could have used a BlackBerry to get some work done while "sitting in the mall watching her buying shoes and clothes."
Florence Olsen contributed to this story.
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