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Putting the Brakes on YouTube

Following an inquiry by the BGA and NBC 5, transit agency Pace cracks down on employees accessing videos at work. Why aren’t other public agencies doing more to police web activity?

By Robert Herguth/BGA

February 6, 2013 7:00 AM

Navigating roadways quickly and safely is one of Pace’s main challenges.

undefinedBut the suburban bus agency is contending with something else these days: stopping its employees from navigating inappropriate videos on the Information Superhighway.

An investigation by the Better Government Association and NBC 5 found Pace employees accessed dozens, if not hundreds, of questionable YouTube videos on their computers while at work for the publicly funded organization last year – raising questions about productivity and wasted taxpayer dollars.

Those videos include images of:

  • A Hooters waitress hula-hooping while pouring a beer.
  • A man mustering through a legal deposition while the sounds of two people having sex emanate from a speakerphone.
  • A fake hamster performing kung fu.
  • A hotdog-eating contest.
  • Various sporting and musical events, and other suggestive and profanity-laden moments.

YouTube is a wildly popular web site at www.youtube.com that allows those with an Internet connection to upload and watch videos for free.

Although many Pace employees didn’t appear to spend much time there, some seemed to be heavy users, routinely clicking on videos about everything from hair care to politics to martial arts.

Pace provided the video links to the BGA in response to a records request made by the nonprofit government watchdog under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The BGA sought the records because part of its mission is making sure taxpayer money and resources aren’t wasted.

Prompted by the BGA request, Pace conducted an internal review of YouTube usage and ended up reprimanding an unspecified number of employees, officials said.

The agency already was blocking certain sites from access and tracking how much time employees were spending on the web each month, said Pace Executive Director T.J. Ross. Now, officials plan to ramp up oversight by periodically reviewing visits to specific sites such as YouTube, Ross said.

What’s more, a recently hired "ethics officer" will help determine whether further rules or controls are needed for the web, officials said.

"I’m not going to talk about what specific people did," Ross said. "I think what’s important is we did take this seriously."

Pace – and other public agencies in the Chicago region – indicated that it’s tricky to know all of the YouTube web addresses that were visited, and how long employees spent watching videos.

That’s because select YouTube videos are available on outside web sites. Computer users accessing one of those outside sites might never watch a YouTube video, but their computer systems may electronically record a YouTube video’s web address as if they had visited, officials said.

Either way, Pace officials determined that some of the inappropriate YouTube videos indeed were watched on the job, and Ross said he personally spoke with workers to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Overall, Pace employs roughly 1,600 people, and about 350 have Internet access, officials said. Pace is headquartered in Arlington Heights and provides bus service throughout the collar counties and in parts of the city.

The BGA and NBC 5 also found that public agencies in the Chicago region haphazardly monitor so-called "cyber-slacking," with varying policies, oversight and technology, and therefore varying grasps on the extent of Internet misuse by public-sector employees.

The City of Chicago, for instance, doesn’t regularly monitor how long employees are on any web site, largely because of the cost, officials said. There is software that blocks offensive or otherwise inappropriate sites from access by city employees, but social media sites such as YouTube and Facebook are not among them.

Meanwhile, the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority "restricts access for all employees to Internet sites that are not appropriate for viewing at work, including social media sites," spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said via email.

"However, exceptions are made for members of the Communications Department, who are requested to view and monitor social media outlets including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter for information that is relevant to our agency," she said.

The Regional Transportation Authority – the umbrella organization for Pace, Metra and the CTA – lets select employees access Facebook and Twitter for work-related reasons, but every RTA employee with Internet can visit YouTube, officials said.

Although the RTA indicated that YouTube "is used for a variety of purposes including training," officials said URLs are not regularly monitored.

Studies have found that goofing off on the Internet is rampant in the workplace, costing employers billions of dollars in lost productivity.

"It’s certainly . . . a problem, especially when it’s taxpayer money," said Jessica Vitak, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland who has researched "cyber loafing."

But because of the magnitude of Internet usage, and the time and cost involved in monitoring or preventing misuse on the job, "I don’t think there are easy solutions," Vitak said.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Robert Herguth with NBC 5. BGA intern Tyler Langan contributed to this report. To reach them, email rherguth@bettergov.org or call (312) 821-9030.

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