Facebook has come to earn a certain level of ubiquity. In most living situations, offices, and smart phones, it’s seamlessly integrated. If I’m working on a story and think of a good person to contact, the social networking site instantly connects me to them. Moments later, I’m catching up with an old relative or enjoying a puppy meme. It’s a virtual, interactive Rolodex constantly expanding, of its own volition, for my gain.
Whether at home, at work, or most places in between (via a wifi connection and a smart phone), the ease of access and assumption of availability are quickly becoming the rule, rather than the exception.
Unless, of course, you happen to work for the state.
Linda Lord-Jenkins serves as the ombudsman for Alaska. The office of the ombudsman serves as a mediator between citizens and the government; investigating complaints and orchestrating government oversight and response. And, under existing policy, her office is handicapped by an arcane ban on the use of Facebook using state computers.
Whereas many casual observers would favor workplace restrictions on social media, concluding that this would lead to more focus and productivity, Lord-Jenkins would beg to differ. Last week, the ombudsman participated in a legislative council meeting reviewing the policy. In written testimony, she and other non-partisan state agencies offered a laundry list of ways in which restrictions on Facebook impaired myriad basic functions of their jobs, from investigation policies to hiring practices.
Such problems often aren’t as arbitrary and harmless as one might think. Lord-Jenkins conveyed instances where an Office of Children’s Services investigation was impeded by the ban, including this one:
OCS placed a child with one relative after the child’s parent was murdered. OCS then moved the child to another relative placement because of information allegedly posted on Facebook by the first relatives. The ombudsman was unable to view the pertinent Facebook information that caused the child to be removed.
Testimony submitted by the ombudsman’s office, the Legislative Ethics Committee, and the Division of Legislative Audit all emphasized the importance of changing the policy to remove the handicap it burdened each of their respective agencies. State representatives Scott Kawasaki (D-Fairbanks) and Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage) also lent their support to the proposal.
Legislators have not been affected by the Facebook restrictions. For the past year, they’ve been afforded temporary access while official policy was reviewed. The council’s meeting last week sought to strike a permanent solution.
Thus paved the way for an event every American should look forward to: hearing elected lawmakers try to understand the internet. It’s not altogether unlike listening to Todd Akin describe a woman’s reproductive system or Paul Broun elucidate evolution. And, at the end, we arrive at the same troubling question: Shouldn’t these people try a little harder to understand the things that they make laws about?
Last Wednesday’s meeting strayed far from the procedural hurdles described by Lord-Jenkins – tales of the basic problems an employee faces when policy requires them to leave work to access a basic function of their job (imagine if you worked in custom stationary but your employer banned use of printers in your office). Legislative Council members seemed much more concerned about politics and privacy issues – namely, each of their own personal privacy.
“It’s not because I’m afraid of the technology,” state representative Mike Chenault (R-Nikiski) mused. “I’m afraid of – once it goes out there it doesn’t come back.
Chenault would specifically reference “Mybook and Facespace” before his colleague, state representative Lance Pruitt (R-Anchorage), corrected his mistaken assumption that everything on Facebook is for public consumption; a false notion that valley representative Bill Stoltze also incorrectly backed:
Facebook, by its nature, is for throwing your life out there for everybody to see. You’ve already done that in advance. You don’t need to do a search; you’ve already revealed everything you care to share and sometimes more, as people find out.
Neither Stoltze, nor any of his colleagues, addressed the social media ban’s problems cited by the various state agencies. There didn’t seem to be a firm grasp of what most lawmakers are already doing; separating personal Facebook profiles and professional ones. With close to half the legislature already having these such accounts, for constituent outreach, wouldn’t it have seemed helpful to ask one of them to explain this common practice to the committee?
Luckily for Lord-Jenkins and her colleagues, the majority of the council didn’t find anything objectionable her plea for facebook access, and the motion to extend Facebook access to non-partisan agencies passed by a vote of 8-3.
The debate regarding whether or not legislators and legislative staff should enjoy permanent Facebook access continued for over an hour, before repeated appeals by state senator Peter Micciche (R-Kenai) paid off. Micciche said that he had not used Facebook until campaigning for office, but came to embrace it as a tool to engage constituents. He didn’t give much credit to the allegations that social media was a slippery slope to shady campaign tactics and reminded them that technology is always changing. It’s up to legislators to be on top of those changes, and the ball was now in their court.
[T]hink about if we had this discussion when email became a way to communicate with constituents, and folks were struggling with that transformation. Clearly that was the right decision. We ironed out those issues. We attached some requirements to email. And it’s a very effective way to communicate. It brought in a new generation of folks. And, in my view, we are always trying to get the younger generation engaged. And I strongly ask you to just think about that before we vote. In my view, it’s very important for the way we communicate, and if you’re not communicating that way, run a poll in your district. Find out how many folks are using Facebook to learn about things and I think you’ll find that it’s a surprising proportion of the folks you represent.
The appeal was enough to sway Hawker’s vote, which ended up deciding the issue (the council required an eight-vote majority). The final tally on the new, permanent policy allowing state employees (elected officials and bureaucrats alike) to use Facebook was decided by an affirmative 8-2 vote, with Senator John Coghill (R-North Pole) and Stoltze dissenting.
Though the legislative council chair, Mike Hawker, repeatedly voiced his intent to finally put the matter to rest, don’t count on it. Facebook access to legislative staffers, for instance, was not clearly sanctioned. Current provisions only permit them to log onto their boss’s computer and account to perform functions under the legislator’s name. Given recent moves by media outlets, like the Daily News, to require Facebook accounts to view comments, this could be problematic.
The extended access to facebook is a good start, but hardly has culminated in comprehensive, informed public policy. It will likely need several software updates.