Many civil servants don’t have internet access at work, GDS finds

A “significant” number of civil servants still don’t have access to the internet and social media at work, according to the Government Digital Service (GDS).

In its latest quarterly update, the GDS says that access to technology remains a major barrier stopping civil servants from embracing digital tools. Government departments are known for blocking access to social media for security reasons.

However, GDS warned that “these restrictions [of internet and social media] conflict with the Civil Service Reform Plan aims for government to work digitally. They also hinder us in educating civil servants on digital and how it can help in their work”.

One civil servant, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the Treasury and HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) were two examples of departments that have filters in place to stop staff from using social media websites and free online tools, such as Google Docs and Trello.

“It makes working across departments almost impossible,” he said. “Everything has to be done via email, sometimes sending huge attachments across, instead of, say, popping it on Dropbox.

He added: “It is unfathomable to me why GDS and senior members of the civil service are pushing open internet tools to staff and at the same time some departments are blocking access to them.

“Moreover, there's no easy way to get them unblocked. Departments do not make the process to remove filters clear in my experience, and when they do, there is a lengthy approvals process to do so.”

Securing Google Apps

The GDS said that it is working to remove these barriers. For example, it said in the report that it is currently working with CESG to try to get security accreditation for Google Apps for use in the Cabinet Office Technology Transformation Programme. It plans to do the same for other, cloud-based collaborative tools, such as Box, Salesforce and Trello.

The transformation programme, which is working to replace the Cabinet Office’s main IT contract when it expires in January 2015, is being run by the GDS using Agile principles. It is hoped that the programme will act as a sort of blueprint for the future of civil service IT.

The GDS started running trials for the Cabinet Office project at the end of last year, trialling laptops, tablets, e-mail, WiFi access and collaboration tools with a group of roughly 50 users.

According to a blog post by civil servant Will van Rensburg, the pilot found that users liked the real-time document editing functionality on Google Docs, but they were unable to collaborate with people outside of the trials who were not using the same technology.

The GDS concluded that it would be difficult for the civil service to fully benefit from Google Apps without official support, hence the decision to seek accreditation with CESG.

As part of the trial, the GDS also provided users with lightweight laptops and tablets, Evernote, Libre Office, a lightweight secure layer, device management, portable 4g WiFi and printers.

Rensburg said that some of the users were “extremely reluctant to return any of the equipment” when the trial ended earlier this year.

He added: “Some of the clearest evidence of the difference the technology made came when we asked for the kit back – without exception, every team on the trial asked to keep the equipment beyond the trial end date.”

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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