MONTPELIER – A controversial plan to monitor the web-viewing habits of state employees has reduced Internet usage at the state's largest agency by 25 percent, according to Commissioner of Human Resources Caroline Earle.
In the one-week period following the program launch in late May, Earle says, agency-wide Internet usage dropped by 2,300 hours. That's the equivalent of 57 fulltime positions, according to Earle, who says the new oversight will likely have a marked effect on employee productivity.
"If you extrapolate, you're talking about almost 120,000 employee hours over the course of a year, which is an extraordinary amount of time that is presumably freed up to gain better efficiencies and to provide a better level of services for Vermonters, which is what we had hoped for," Earle says.
She says the early results – the administration conducted a baseline reading of Internet usage in the week leading up to the software launch – vindicate an initiative beset by criticism from both lawmakers and the state employees union. J
But Jes Kraus, head of the Vermont State Employees Association, insisted the administration's new data don't justify the program. "Is it really so shocking that when a police state is imposed everybody stays inside?" Kraus said. "If it were me, I would have great pause before sending an e-mail to a significant other saying, 'Hey, want me to pick up milk?'"
Kraus has called efforts to track Internet usage a demoralizing attack on the integrity of state workers.
Earle rejects claims that the oversight program has turned government offices into some kind of Orwellian dystopia.
"I think the biggest disappointment from the administration's perspective with regard to the nay-sayers is the suggestion that this effort demonstrates a level of distrust in employees," Earle says.
Earle says employees were notified in advance of the software launch and that its use is intended to be deterrent, not punitive.
"We give them notice of the implementation of this software and that is a very important step in reminding them of the public trust they hold in using equipment bought and paid for by taxpayers," Earle says. "We make sure they themselves get an opportunity to do a little soul-searching and self-checking to make sure they're using technology and the internet to the best of their professional ability."
Sen. Vince Illuzzi, who tried unsuccessfully to bar Gov. James Douglas administration from proceeding with the web-monitoring plan, isn't convinced that the early Internet usage data will actually translate into increased productivity. Fearful employees, he said, might have simply stopped using the Internet during lunch hours, breaks and after work.
"As far as Internet usage being down, I don't know what conclusion to draw from that without interviewing individual employees," Illuzzi says. "Whether there are more efficiencies in the work product remains to be seen."
State Treasurer Jeb Spaulding, who said in a memo last week that he would not allow employees in his office to be subjected to web-monitoring software, says his position has not changed.
"We've made a real effort to build a set of core values and behaviors with our employees and want to treat them as professionals," says Spaulding, who oversees about 35 employees. "In an office this size, we can make sure taxpayers are getting a good bang for their buck without individual tracking, which I think crosses the line of privacy and is counterproductive to developing enthusiasm and productivity."
Spaulding says he casts no aspersions on agency or department heads that opt to use the monitoring capabilities. But he says it would be "outlandish" to suggest that the 25-percent reduction in Internet usage will translate into a commensurate increase in worker productivity.
"I think those are dots that are not necessarily connected," Spaulding says. "People might have kept Bloomberg on in the background while they're working and now they're not, but does that mean they'll be more productive? Someone could just be reading the paper instead of going on the Internet. Just because you're not on the Internet does not mean you're more productive."
Secretary of Human Resources Rob Hofmann, however, says the link between decreased Internet usage and worker productivity is "self-evident."
"If employees aren't spending time on the Internet, it presumably frees up time to better serve Vermonters," Hofmann says. Between salary and benefits, it cost the state an average of about $70,000 to employ a state worker.
"If we're saving the hourly equivalent of 57 positions, you can do the math," says Hofmann, whose agency employs 3,000 people.
As for critics of the plan, Hofmann says web-monitoring is ubiquitous in larger private-sector firms. Slacking workers in the public sector, he says, should be subject to the same kind of scrutiny. "I don't understand why people think that those few employees who discredit their co-workers with excessive or inappropriate personal use of the Internet … should somehow not be held accountable because they happen to work for state government," he says. The dramatic reduction in Internet use, according to Earle, does not mean large numbers of employees had been flagrantly violating computer-use policies prior to the installation of the software.
"People end up subjecting even professional use of the Internet to a little more scrutiny with a program like this in place," Earle says.
Nor does she claim an hour-for-hour correlation between lost Internet hours and increased worker productivity. But the $120,000 cost to implement the software, she says, will no doubt provide a nice return on investment as administrators continue a budget-driven quest for efficiency throughout state government.
"Certainly with the Challenges for Change initiative going on," Earle says, "this is one way that helps people think about ways they can be more efficient with their time." Illuzzi says reductions in Internet use may say more about the quality of the agency's management than it does about rank-and-file employees. If workers were being so spendthrift with their time on the web, Illuzzi says, why didn't supervisors do anything about it?
"I've always thought that it was the responsibility of managers to oversee the productivity of workers," Illuzzi says. "Perhaps it suggests a lack of proper supervision of employees if now they're saying they've been able to reduce Internet usage."
Sheila Coniff, an accountant at the Department of Aging and Independent Living, says the software, which also blocks employees from accessing various Web sites, hasn't been without problems. When she tried to access the website of a company that hosts the department's case-management software, she says, the site was blocked.
"That's a problem," Coniff says. She says the software has had a chilling effect on employees' sense of privacy and security.
"I have friends who are afraid to check their home e-mail at lunch because they're afraid the state is going to read it," she says.MORE IN Central Vermont
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