How the Air Force Protects Its Employees from Harmful Opinions and Info

When telephones were invented, the federal bureaucracy was flustered: How can federal employees be trusted with this new device? The issue today is the Internet. The regulators in the Air Force trust people to fly and maintain sophisticated technology–but the cyber command is determined to keep personnel from having access to “dangerous information” delivered by the new technology.

A large bureaucracy inevitably struggles with decisions about how to control the workforce.

There is more than a little irony in some of these struggles. Federal employees make decisions on a daily basis that result in sending out billions of dollars to American citizens. They provide research and regulation on drugs that effectively decide whether our citizens will live or die with the drugs they take. Federal employees work on projects that send rockets into space and they make and implement decisions that impact the future of our society.

But can we trust these people?

A bureaucracy likes to control things–including its own employees. New technology creates problems for the regulators of human activity. Can a federal employee be trusted to use a telephone or will an errant individual take advantage of the telephone technology in violation of a regulation? When the phone was first invented, this was a major issue that had to be resolved. In some agencies, lowly employees could not be trusted with the phone. If they had to make a phone call, they could get permission and, perhaps, use the one on a supervisor’s desk who, presumably, would make sure it was for official business.

With the telephone now permeating our society, this seems silly. Everyone in government now has a phone on the desk and probably at least one cell phone. Bureaucracy has evolved. The country has survived. Uncle Sam’s army of regulators learned to live the telephone–although it took years or decades. (See Unintentional Humor from the Federal Bureaucracy)

But the government has not changed much in some ways.

Here is a more recent example.

Air Force personnel, both military and civilian, undoubtedly make judgment calls every day on major issues that impact the mission of the agency. But can these people that control some of the most sophisticated technology the world has ever known be trusted? Will some of them look at pornography? Will they want to check their TSP balance? Do they like to read news articles about how their agency may have paid out $500,000 or so to an employee who filed a lawsuit against the agency for sex discrimination?

My guess is that the folks working for the Air Force are about the same as everyone else and that there are Air Force employees who will do one or all of these things.

But the “Big Brother” dressed in Air Force blue is working hard to make sure they do not give in to their evil nature.

The enemy, of course, is the Internet. It is becoming common in our society and there are terrible, productivity-sucking websites lurking in cyberspace enticing Air Force employees to enter a web address that may keep them from their work. Not to fear: The Cyber Command is hard at work to protect these hard working Air Forcers from their inherently evil nature.

According to Wired, web sites are blocked because of a negative review of content by a supervisor. The move is the result of the Air Force Network Operations Center (AFNOC) taking over control of sites Air Force personnel can visit, a responsibility previously borne by each major command.

“At least one senior Air Force official calls the squeeze so ‘utterly stupid, it makes me want to scream.’ ”

Here is the gist of the argument for blocking employee access to websites according to the report. “Stringent regulations, read literally, require Army officers to review each and every item one of his soldiers puts online, in case they leak secrets. And in televised commercials, screensavers and fliers, troops are told that blogging is a major security risk — even though official sites have proven to leak many, many more secrets. Now there’s the Air Force’s argument, that blogs aren’t legitimate media outlets — and therefore, shouldn’t be read at work.”

The Air Force presumably knows how good–or bad–its employees and military personnel are and how much they can be trusted or how much judgment they are capable of exercising. The answer appears to be they are not very good at making judgments or the senior officials in the Air Force don’t trust them to avoid looking at “blogs” or other sites that may be inherently bad for them.

I see Air Force jets taking off and landing from Eglin AFB every day as they leap into the sky to protect us from an assortment of enemies that wish America harm. I marvel at the technology used that can send these jets soaring so fast that it can be hard to find them when they are leaving and never get tired of watching them coming and going.

It makes me nervous that the Air Force will entrust the sophisticated technology used by the agency every day to invent, fly, control, and maintain this marvelous equipment–but does not trust its own people to have the common sense to avoid websites that provide opinions or content because someone in a position of authority has randomly decreed it is unworthy.

The logical conclusion: Technology changes but bureaucracy and the desire for control or power stays the same. The inevitable result: Air Force employees will see the information anyway if they want to but the agency will spend millions of dollars in time and money to try and block its own employees instead of using the money in a more productive way.

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