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The Tools of Inefficiency: Is Facebook Hurting Gov’t Productivity?

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No doubt you’ve seen the studies that show how social networking sites hurt productivity, and I am pretty sure you’ve read, heard or watched countless stories about how companies have tried to solve that problem. And you would have to be living in a cave in Bora Bora—specifically a cave without WiFi—to not know that when computers go down because of a denial of service attack or security breach, productivity takes a hit

However, some really shocking news that you’ve probably heard nothing about is turning what you think you know about that topic upside-down.

Some twelve weeks ago, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) was the target of a sophisticated hack attack. The EDA is a relatively tiny unit of the Department of Commerce, with only 215 employees, that makes grants to distressed communities from six regional offices. The hackers installed a virus that was so virulent the EDA was cut off from the rest of the Commerce Department, as well as the rest of government, and all its systems were shut down in order to prevent the virus from spreading through the system.

What’s shocking about this attack is not that it happened; in recent months NASA, the Department of Defense and the State Department (to name a few) all experienced serious attacks. In fact, five years ago the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security was shut down by a hack. The Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team reported that the number of breaches in federal systems grew in four years from under 6,000 to over 44,000 in fiscal year 2011, the Washington Post reported.

None of that is surprising. Here’s what is: Remarkably, despite the return to pre-historic fax-machine technology, the EDA seems to be functioning fairly well, perhaps even better in some ways. The Washington Post reported that as a result of the lack of cyber connectivity, human contact between bureaucrats and aid-seekers had increased dramatically, and things were actually getting done.

The beleaguered folks at the EDA still have no e-mail, no Google, and no Instant Messaging. Heaven forbid they have to use the US Post Office, to the extent it still exists. Also, they don’t have access to their Facebook accounts, dating sites, Internet gaming, and, er….. more “inappropriate” forms of pictorial entertainment.

One can’t help but recall that in 2010 it was reported that employees at the Securities Exchange Commission had been surfing some pretty graphic websites (and I don’t mean National Geographic) as much as eight hours a day. Some of the employees who were exposed (forgive the pun) were earning more than $200,000 a year, and much of the activity uncovered had happened during the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. (Note: some federal employees do have access to Facebook and other social media sites at work, and others don’t.)

So, why did this happen at the EDA of all places? Let’s forget about the fact that the threat and reality of security breaches have now become part of the otherwise serene workaday world of government employees everywhere. It’s simply is what is. Indeed, perhaps the most shocking thing about this attack is that the perpetrators knew there was such a thing as the EDA.

Why not go after one of the thirteen different government agencies which, according to USA Today, “fund 209 different science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs – and 173 of those programs overlap with at least one other program.” Better yet, why not one of the 1,271 government agencies that works on security and counter-terrorism? Or wouldn’t the Bureau of Indian Affairs have been a more unique target? And how could they miss this one: the US Department of Agriculture, which granted $700,000 to the University of New Hampshire to study methane gas emissions from dairy cows? That investigation produced the earthshaking conclusion that, “Cows emit most of their methane through belching, only a small fraction from flatulence.” OK, perhaps I should stop milking this theme.

I decided that I would conduct my own hypothetical investigation to try and answer the question of just who was behind this scurrilous attack. Mentally, I rounded up the usual suspects.

I instantly ruled out everybody’s hacker of choice, the Chinese. Certainly, they would have no motive to stop the federal government from giving away more of the money that we borrowed from them in the first place, right? So, how about those fun-loving government disrupters who are aligned with “hacktivist” organizations? Naw… I just don’t see them wanting to prevent aid from being given to distressed communities. The main-stream liberal community would be okay with narrowing the distance between the sources of government largesse and the people who actually need the money. Wait, could it be right-wing extremists? After all, they are pretty sensitive about the 78 to 81 card-carrying Communists in Congress—and I have no doubt that crew sees the EDA as yet another manifestation of Communism.

Try as I might, I just couldn’t figure out who was responsible for this successful hack. On the one hand, the right must be pleased by the idea of shutting down government agencies one by one, or at least slowing the torrent of government grants. On the other, the left would be pleased by the newly responsive EDA’s contact with its needy clientele. And everyone, I think, would be ecstatic that the employees of any given government agency could no longer socially network, or otherwise dillydally, on taxpayer time.

The truth is stranger than anything I can deduce from the facts in evidence here. The web-based tools of productivity out there may have some unplanned inefficiencies—Google docs, IM, email, etc—because on the other side of getting things done is having a wee bit too much free time, and that time can be spent using web-based tools of inefficiency. (There’s also the notion that the speed afforded those with tools of productivity may be a tad faster than the speed of human thought and innovation.)

So, my final, unscientific conclusion is simply this: sometimes chance is the catalyst of evolution. Perhaps the country’s fascination with Mad Men explains the phenomenon somewhat, which for lack of any fancy way of putting it, we might call good, old-fashioned face-to-face, phone-to-phone, people-powered productivity.

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