In a previous post I anticipated that the Italian minister for innovation and public administration wanted to ban Facebook and other social sites. This may be the consequence of a directive he issued on May 26th, available as a scanned document on the relevant department’s web site (in Italian only).
Whereas other countries, such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand, are taking a light touch approach to regulating access to social software, by just reminding the obligations contained in their civil service codes of conduct (see my earlier post), the Italian minister takes a very different approach.
Although the directive makes reference to the Italian civil service code of conduct, it just mentions how behaviors would be sanctioned, ranging from “malpractice in taking care of government assets” to the fact that “employees do not use government assets for personal purposes”. The directive takes a threatening turn by mentioning Court of Auditors’ decisions concerning the damage caused by an employee who would use an Internet connection in the workplace and not perform his or her duty while connected. Other damages would be caused by viruses got through “non institutional” sites as well as caused by other people (e.g. colleagues or relatives) unduly accessing the workstation.
Recommendations include blocking illegal Internet sites (which is perfectly fine) and identifying categories of web sites that are related or unrelated to professional activities, possibly blacklisting some of the latter or preventing specific activities, such as uploads or downloads. The only exception granted by the directive is to allow government employees to discharge administrative obligations (such as entertaining relations with other public administrations to – say – file taxes or check their social security position, or with banks and insurance companies), which is seen as beneficial for productivity.
Finally the directive addresses the use of institutional email, inviting individual departments to issue rules and guidelines to make sure that professional and personal use of email are clearly distinguished.
The directive is clearly motivated by the need to contain the impact of potentially unproductive activities – such as browsing travel web sites, reading newspapers online, bidding on eBay , chatting on Facebook and so forth – as part of a broader effort to make the Italian public administration more efficient. However, as the directive concludes reminding that it is up to manager to exercise their power of control to make sure employees behave according to the rules, it suggests an approach to management that is focused on inputs rather than outputs (or outcomes). Government managers should be empowered to decide what is the best combination of tools, information and activities that their direct report should use in order to maximize the quality and effectiveness of the outcomes they contribute to, and not pushed to micromanage and police individual employee activities.
Further, a minister who is – somewhat ironically – tasked with innovating the public sector should take a serious look at where the personal use of the Internet can be dismissed as a waste of time, and where it may be an essential complement of an employee’s set of activities. Threatening legal action and suggesting that the boundary between professional and personal use of the Internet has to remain rigid means not recognizing that all those boundaries are already blurring.
It is not just a matter of attracting qualified resources to work for government (how many gen-Yers would like to work in an environment like this?). It is about leveraging the skills and the willingness to innovate that many government employees possess as well as preparing them to better interact with citizens who are increasingly used to the peer-connection that is typical of social networks.
Indeed there will always be people who misuse resources and waste time, and managers are supposed to assess their performances, change their behaviors and – where necessary –. take disciplinary action. I would argue that the vast majority of public employees have a strong sense of responsibility, but often work with antiquate processes and tools. Social networking can provide some (or most) of them with the means to contribute to transformation and innovation. Be they teachers, tax agents, social workers, case managers or internal support staff, being able to blur internal and external social networking activities may be where most of the value will come from.
There are ways in which the contribution of social networks to outcomes and productivity of government employees can be explored and assessed. In our research piece “How Governments Can Use Social Networks” (subscription required) we suggested a six-phases approach, based on (1) allowing people to access Internet and social networks from their workplace within the boundaries of their code of conduct and (2) letting them free to identify external resources – including social networks – that would demonstrably improve their work.
Doing this collaboratively as opposed to sanctioning any access to external web sites as a violation or even a criminal offence is the way to motivate employees to contribute to change, and innovate.
Too bad a Minister for Innovation does not get it.