Keep it Clean

It’s a pretty impressive statistic by any measure of data collection. Two million pages, not quite a terabyte but certainly up there in the gigabyte awards and one wonders how much the advanced storage technology supporting it might be costing the taxpayer.

I’m writing of course about the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) and not sadly on the administration of benefit records and other necessary public duties but on the accumulation of pornography. If you happen to dig back far enough into some of my earlier columns, then you will find me speculating that public sector and university IT might have a second and sinister hidden function, which frequently includes the serving of inappropriate material, such as pornography and images of child abuse.

On this occasion, more than two hundred civil servants have been disciplined for downloading pornographic images at work as part of an eight-month investigation which monitored the computer use of 140,000 staff at the DWP.

Those of us working in the private sector recognise the risk of vicarious liability on the part of the employer and will sensibly exercise a policy of “Zero-tolerance” where such activities are discovered in the workplace, as described in a policy document which every intelligent company should have in this litigious day and age.

If employees are found to be downloading and worse still, distributing pornography and images of child abuse, then there is only one avenue of recourse, show them the door and where appropriate involve the police.

But that’s the norm in the private sector. A cynic might believe that the heavily unionised public sector might not be able to react as swiftly or be capable of doing what the rest of society might believe is “The right thing” under such circumstances. In the DWP, we are told that one person has been prosecuted and 227 people disciplined and of these 16 were sacked, which rather makes the odds of “Getting away” with downloading pornography on public-sector systems quite attractive to those with the impulse to swap “dirty pictures” at work..

The weak excuse from the DWP that many staff “Innocently followed a link from another site and were unaware of its content”, isn’t really good enough, as any audit trail will be able to clearly discriminate between those that strayed on to a website by mistake and never visited it again and those that repeatedly returned for further instalments. The reporting capabilities of such systems are now very good and are capable of building-up a body of evidence that is capable of supporting any decision to dismiss and employee for inappropriate use.

Sadly perhaps, Mary Whitehouse is no more and we live in the “Politically correct”, “Compensation culture”, referred to by the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, in a speech last week. Our public sector is poor at taking responsibility for anything these days, whether this involves a shortage of body armour for our soldiers or images of child abuse held on central government systems.

I suspect that the DWP represents the tip of a much larger iceberg which shames our public sector use of IT. Zero tolerance of such behaviour at work should be universal and even more rigorously enforced where the taxpayer’s money is involved. No excuses, the public sector should set the example for business and not the other way around.


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