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Computer Games Shutdown Called Partial Fix of Time Management

By Stephen Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 1997; Page A13

When the Senate agreed to legislation that would require federal agencies to remove computer games from all government computers, Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) called his proposal a "common sense" remedy aimed at restoring the public's confidence in government.

"It is absolutely ludicrous that the taxpayers are paying people to play computer games," Faircloth told his colleagues. He said he offered his measure, accepted by the Senate July 17 without opposition, because computer games "do nothing but decrease productivity."

But public policy experts suggest that while Faircloth pointed, he didn't click on a more important, underlying issue -- how to better manage government employees. As for how employees use computers, industry analysts also caution that there are no simple solutions to the "futz factor," the wasting of work time by futzing around with electronic games, e-mail and the Internet.

"If employees are playing computer games in the office in large numbers, that's a management problem, which needs to be attacked by managers assigning work and checking to make sure it is done," said Constance Horner, a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former appointee in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

The solution, Horner said, "is for the federal government to be hiring people who are oriented toward work and putting into place systems that reward work with money, status and the opportunity for more advanced work."

Franklin S. Reeder, a member of the National Academy of Public Administration and a former Office of Management and Budget official, recalled that 35 years ago many agencies did not give employees a telephone connected to an outside line. But the government changed its policy, he said, in part because officials acknowledged that workers should be treated as responsible adults and because it made no sense to have people leaving their desks to find pay phones when faced with child-care or auto repair concerns.

"The real issue is, is the employee producing? Are the taxpayers getting their money's worth? Not what each person is doing minute by minute," Reeder said.

Mark A. Abramson, a former civil servant who chairs Leadership Inc., a training and consulting firm, said the government's challenge for the next century is to create "high trust organizations" that respect the dignity of employees.

"We can't go back to low-trust, punch-clock organizations where management does not trust its employees to use good judgment and their time wisely," he said.

Faircloth said the issue was not about trusting employees. "I would not at all disagree that there are vast management problems in the federal government, but I think realistically I can't change those."

Faircloth, who is up for reelection next year, said he decided to push for a ban when he saw members of his staff playing games on their computers.

One popular computer system purchased by the government comes from Microsoft Corp., whose Windows operating software includes a card game, solitaire, and Minesweeper, a logic puzzle made up of square tiles. Some versions of Windows contain other games, such as the card game hearts.

The games have been used to teach computer users about the point-and-click functions of the computer's control device, called a mouse.

Faircloth pointed out that Virginia Gov. George Allen(R) and former Labor secretary Robert B. Reich ordered their agencies to delete computer games from their equipment.

Spokesmen for the state and the Labor Department said removal of the games involved minimal staff time, but could not say how much the effort cost. One Labor Department technology center also deploys software that automatically inventories computer files and alerts officials when it detects unauthorized games brought in by employees from their homes, a department spokesman said.

A career official, who spoke on condition he not be identified, said the cost of erasing computer games could run as high as $200,000 a year in staff time at Cabinet departments.

In his floor speech, Faircloth cited a private-sector survey that estimated $10 billion in annual productivity losses because employees played computer games and related activities in the office. Faircloth aides said the figures were taken from a 1995 Washington Post article that quoted a 1993 survey of 1,000 corporations.

A Faircloth aide said the office had obtained "extensive anecdotal evidence" that substantial numbers of federal employees play computer games during work hours. Industry analysts and government officials said they do not know how many employees goof off at work playing computer games.

Other analysts said the more common games become boring after a short time and that more workers waste time surfing the Internet or carrying on conversations and personal matters through e-mail.

Bill Kirwin, a vice president of Gartner Group Inc., a Connecticut company specializing in information technology analysis and consulting, estimated that the futz factor could run 100 hours annually per employee as workers explore Web sites for essentially personal reasons.

A sampling of federal employees, who asked not to be identified, elicited doubts that Faircloth's proposal could be enforced. Workers will simply pull games off the Web to replace any removed by managers, said two employees -- one from the Housing and Urban Development Department and the other from the Veterans Affairs Department.

Faircloth, who said he has never used a computer, acknowledged that his proposal addresses only one part of a perceived problem in government offices. But, he said, "It sends a message that we don't condone the loafing that goes on."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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