Unintentional Humor From the Federal Bureaucracy

New technology can be threatening and it takes time to adapt. It takes some longer than others. In the meantime, one agency has unintentionally set itself as a target for humor and ridicule on the Internet.

Bureaucracies often do not like change. Decisions have to be made, policies have to be written and the organization has to accommodate new people and new ideas. In other words, new technology has benefits but it also means work for someone. Rejecting change and reacting to change by trying to make it go away seems to be part of human nature in general and part of large organizations in particular.

Several years ago, David Orr, a well-known federal human resources official and a popular speaker at human resources conferences, gave a speech in Washington, DC. He compared the introduction of the internet in government offices to what happened with the telephone in earlier decades. Agencies tried to restrict the use of the telephone and he cited government regulations intended to restrict telephone usage by Uncle Sam’s employees so that they would not be wasting time chatting with friends and relatives with the new invention.

In some agencies, only higher level feds could use the telephone; presumably those who were trustworthy enough not to misuse the new technology and disrupt the important business of the agency. Few federal agencies had phones and the ones who did were expected to use them sparingly. Eventually, phones became more essential and even the lower graded federal employees got to use them. Eventually, most federal employees even got to put a phone on their desk but that change took decades. Regulations were written; disciplinary actions were taken; threats were made and, in time, the technology became an accepted part of the government workplace.

Why should acceptance of the internet be any different? As you will see, the federal bureaucracy continues to react in the same way to change.

The internet technology is a threat. It provides instant access to news and information. Federal employees do not have to use a local employee newsletter to find out what is going on. In effect, the agency loses control. Its employees find out what is happening in their agency often before some senior officials even know about events that may impact them.

What should an agency do? The technology can be abused. Some will use the internet for gambling. Some will check their stock reports. Others will surf to find a date for next Saturday night. Some will send e-mail to a friend or spouse to make arrangements for picking up the kids or meeting for a drink after work.

One obvious option is to ban the use of the internet. It may not be possible to ban it altogether but it can certainly make life more difficult for federal employees who want to use the new technology.

In a move that sounds like it came from a famous novel about government control or information, the Department of Interior has decided to ban a number of sites. Computer technology allows an organization to automatically restrict access to certain sites. The trick, of course, is deciding what federal employees are mature enough to view and what they must not be allowed to see.

We first became aware of the new policy when we got a couple of e-mails from employees asking why they received a message saying they could not view FedSmith.com because of “objectionable content.” In an attempt at humor, we pointed out that perhaps someone in the chain of command did not like the article about the 2007 federal pay raise or, perhaps, they may not have liked the article about the use of a lie detector in some agencies to ferret out fraud, corruption or dishonesty. We also pointed out that some agencies have previously banned our e-mail newsletter because it contained the phrase “Merry Christmas” as objectionable content.

We have also learned not to use the phrase “sexual harassment” or to describe a case summary from the Merit Systems Protection Board as involving “pornography” or any use of a word that may imply sex. We have gone to code words such as “he was fired for accessing inappropriate web sites” which usually seems to escape the federal censor code writers.

The action by the Department of the Interior has quickly become the source of a vast number of stories on the internet. The Federal Times certainly noticed the action and reported that, initially at least, conservative political websites seemed to be the target of the censors. The internet was soon jumping with lists of sites deemed inappropriate for the eyes of Interior employees and the list continued to grow throughout the day and over the weekend. (See a list from the Gates of Vienna web site.)

Humor, of course, is an effective tool and the Interior Department censors have been an inspiration for some artists. See, as one example, the suggested logo for the Interior Department.

One employee of the agency wrote about the attempt to start blocking sites: “They chose a filtering product that was designed for ease of administration rather than precision or accuracy, and they’ve been flailing about for the past few days trying to determine which categories should be blocked and which shouldn’t… and the weblogs category keeps getting turned on and off….Don’t attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence.”

Actually, in our experience, the Department of the Interior is not the first agency to try and restrict access to information. Several months ago, FedSmith.com ran a story about an employee of the Bureau of Prisons who received a large settlement in a complaint against the agency. Perhaps it was coincidental, but a few days later, subscribers from BOP could no longer receive the daily newsletter. In fact, the agency blocked any e-mail from our site directed to agency employees.

A similar scenario occurred with the Small Business Administration. Again, we ran a news item that was unfavorable about the agency’s ability to process applications from victims of Hurricane Katrina. Within a short time after the story appeared, no SBA employees were able to receive the daily newsletter from FedSmith.com.

Dealing with new technology is hard for any bureaucracy. The first reaction of those offended by information (often critical of the agency in some way) is to simply try to turn it off.

No doubt, the employees at the Department of Interior as well as those at BOP and SBA will continue to find news about the agency from FedSmith or elsewhere on the internet–at home if not at work. The underlying presumption is that federal employees are not able to reach the proper conclusions about their agency, their job or their working environment if they have access to too much information. And, as cases demonstrate, there are a small number of federal employees who will abuse the new technology to seek out “inappropriate sites.”

Perhaps the Interior Department should just have a few computers around and let employees use the internet under the watchful eye of a supervisor–just as agencies did with the introduction of the telephone. Of course, who will watch the supervisor?

Agencies can and should take action where there is abuse. If I were still a federal employee, I would be insulted with an agency management that thinks the best way to incorporate the new technology is to try and block information. There is little doubt about the final evolution of the process. But, as with the introduction of the telephone, it may take longer in some agencies than in others.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47