Thoughts on Portsmouth’s Facebook ban

Portsmouth Council announced this week they’ve decided to ban access to Facebook from its computers after it was revealed staff spent an average of 400 hours a month on the site.

Council bans on Facebook are hardly new; many have restrictions on access thanks to the requirements of Government Connect. But this story focussed on “waste”, noting 400 hours a month equates to between five and six minutes per month spent on the site by each of the 4,500 PC-based staff.

Firstly, the statistic isn’t a sound one; Portsmouth Council admit they can’t differentiate between business and personal use, nor between dwelling and active browsing, which means they don’t know how much of that 400 hours is clocked up by windows left open while the user does something else.

Second, the headline doesn’t reflect the real issue behind this story. Organisations have had this debate many times already, over the potential for employees to waste time if given a telephone, email, or access to the internet. In all of these cases, it’s a manager’s job to tackle any perceived timewasting, and so too it should be for Facebook. But instead of looking at the quality of performance management, Portsmouth Council are trying to solve the problem from the centre.

This strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People are already talking about us on social networks. We can either choose to ignore those conversations, or we can listen to and learn from them.

As Carl Heggarty notes, would we consider a member of staff visiting a village hall and listening to community issues and communicating with them about councils services a waste of time, or would that be considered community engagement?

Employees listening out for the organisation on social networks gives us an extended network of “eyes and ears” able to highlight problems and bring them to our attention before they spiral out of control and become significant reputational risks.

By banning access, we prevent employees from listening on our behalf, identifying problems so they can be given attention by more conventional means. But heavy-handed bans also prevent employees from speaking for us. Employees can be powerful advocates for what we do, and are likely to speak highly of us in their social networks, both on and offline. By banning access we limit employees ability to advocate for us online.

By limiting the extent to which informed and engaged employees can advocate on its behalf, Portsmouth Council is failing to get the full value from its internal communications.

Finally, centrally-imposed bans on access could also be said to have a negative impact on employee engagement. Hertzberg argues that dissatisfaction with employment is primarily motivated by company policy, supervision, salary, interpersonal relations and working conditions (what he termed ‘Hygiene Factors’). Portsmouth’s policy of blocking social networking sites could be seen to create dissatisfaction among employees, as it could be seen to be heavy-handed centralised supervision, and limits their ability to manage their work-life balance and build working relationships.

The Work Foundation found access to new technology affects how people view their organisational culture: “People who have access to newer technologies are more likely to characterise their organisation as one that is loyal with mutual trust, that is committed to innovation and development or is focussed on achievement and not rule bound”.

The holy grail of employee engagement is discretionary effort. Engage your staff and they repay you by investing more time and effort into their work; fail to engage – or actively disengage – and employees are not motivated to contribute more than the bare minimum.

A more nuanced look at Portsmouth’s Facebook ban might reveal it has a negative impact both on employee engagement and on community engagement, resulting in far more “waste” than the five to six minutes a month currently spent on Facebook.

9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Portsmouth’s Facebook ban

  1. Excellent, well written piece. I could not agree more about the quality of management and supervisions and the importance of engagement. In my experience many councils handle this poorly!
    Add in some of Dan Pink’s thinking on Purpose, Mastery and Autonomy and I think you get a further endorsement of a more ‘enlightened’ approach.

    However my best guess is that this has more to do with ‘How it will go down with the voters’ rather than ‘How it will contribute to a culture of performance and engagement in the council’.

    Which is a shame.

    • I haven’t read any of Dan Pink’s work – but I will do.

      A simple ban is headline-grabbing (“council cuts down on dreadful waste”), but fails to consider what the true impacts are. Flexibility works both ways: treat your employees like adults and they’ll repay you by being flexible, working a little later if needed, being more engaged with the organisation, etc – all of which is worth far more to the organisation and the taxpayer than the five or six minutes a month “waste”.

      How many employees have worked more than six minutes overtime this month in return for their employer’s flexibility?

  2. Interesting piece, a nice summary of the issues involved.

    I was talking with a council IT manager recently, I shan’t name him. He was talking about how heavily filtered web access was and felt it was perfectly reasonable. Non-web protocols such as IRC were completely blocked and non-work sites, including Facebook et al, were blocked – much like Portsmouth.

    You mention the effect on employee engagement and empowerment. I wonder what effect it has on recruiting talented staff? Given the choice between higher pay, more trust and unfettered internet access in a private company and lower pay, filtered web access and less trust in local government I wonder how many truly talented technical staff are being turned away?

    That’s not to imply there aren’t great technical staff working in local government, I know there are from events like localgovcamp – but could there be more with more trust?


    • That’s an interesting point, Rob. As the Work Foundation report says, decisions like Portsmouth’s have an impact on the way we view organisational culture. An organisation that characterises itself as one which doesn’t trust employees will struggle to attract those interested in bringing new ideas and innovation – all things the local government sector needs more of.

  3. Pingback: For the last time…stop blocking! | DavePress

  4. What is ironic about this whole episode is that if you go to the website of the local paper who did the FOI that created this story you will find the vast majority of local residents commenting saying that the ban is a bad thing!

  5. Pingback: A few thoughts on the Facebook ‘fluffle « Policy and Performance

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