Instant messaging (IM) has become part of our national psyche. According to the third annual Instant Messaging Trends Survey, which was completed by AOL in August 2005, 70 percent of Internet users communicate using IM, and 39 percent of those send at least as many instant messages as e-mails.
Even so, many government agencies can’t decide whether to consider IM friend or foe. States and localities that allow users to send ad hoc instant messages may find their security and their citizens’ privacy compromised. On the other hand, governments that have carefully considered IM policies and relevant administrative tools may find the medium a boon to efficiency and customer service.
Overall, business use of IM is up. According to the AOL survey, 58 percent of workers send instant messages to communicate with colleagues, 49 percent use IM to get answers and make business decisions, and 28 percent exchange instant messages with clients or customers.
But are state and local governments getting in on the action? Recently, StateTech discussed IM use with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Hennepin County, Minn., and Mesa, Ariz.
These interviews with three distinct types of governments produced a portrait that illustrates how extensively organizations use IM, what specific processes are enhanced by it, and whether organizations that employ IM allow employees to use public or commercial instant messaging (CIM) or enterprise instant messaging (EIM) applications.
Pennsylvania is one of the states that allows some employees to use IM, albeit with limited access. Kristin Miller, the state’s CIO, says that only a couple of agencies use IM, primarily because most haven’t demonstrated a requirement for the technology.
“Before installing any technology, we request an agency to talk to us about the business need,” Miller says. “If someone asks for it, I say, ‘Let’s make sure it’s the right technology for the situation.’” She points out that IM, like any technology option, should not be implemented simply because it’s the latest thing.
However, Miller is quick to point out that Pennsylvania’s IT department hasn’t had to use its veto power extensively. “So far, our departments haven’t shown any great interest in IM,” she says. Apparently, few departments have found ways to use IM to improve their workflows.
Other localities have found varying levels of IM interest among user groups.
Take Hennepin County in Minnesota, for example. Until January 2005, the county had to license the IM function separately in Lotus Notes, and it passed on the extra fee to its departments. The cost may have acted as a disincentive to some groups. Since then, IM has become integral to Lotus Notes’ e-mail systems and is free.
As a result, more people take advantage of IM, says Vicki Raabe, team leader for the group that provides e-mail, IM and collaboration services for the county. Because the county is not tracking IM usage, Raabe doesn’t know how many of the 12,000 Lotus Notes users communicate using IM, but she has heard anecdotal evidence of growth. “The more I talk to people about IM, the more I hear stories of how people are using it,” she says.
Mesa, Ariz., also recently upgraded to the Lotus Notes version that includes IM as part of the e-mail function. The city is currently experiencing 5,000 to 9,000 IM sessions a month, and about 40 percent of its employees are available for IM as part of their e-mail inbox.
This is despite the fact that “We haven’t given it a lot of fanfare,” says Diane Gardner, Mesa’s IT services leader. Since many people either use commercial IM at home or know someone who does, she says, the concept is not foreign to anyone. And since IM is integrated into the e-mail system, it’s not hard to find.
When compared with private sector companies surveyed by AOL, Pennsylvania, Hennepin County and Mesa may not be heavy IM users. Nevertheless, these governments are finding inventive, useful applications for the technology.
For example, while Pennsylvania requires departments — not individuals — to apply for IM applications, it makes an exception in the case of the hearing impaired. “We’re finding that IM is a good accessibility option for that population,” Miller says.
Typical applications fall into these categories: work teams, help desk, decentralized environment and serving citizens.
Work Teams: In Pennsylvania, the early adopters of IM have been technology workers themselves. Developers and programmers work closely together, but the seating arrangements don’t always reflect that, Miller says. This makes working collaboratively more time-consuming.
That’s where IM comes to the rescue. “A lot of our technical people need a quick answer or want a solution that someone has used before,” Miller says. IM allows them to see who’s online and available to help them.
Help Desk: Technology workers are among the biggest users of IM at Hennepin County. Help desk personnel who need advice on troubleshooting IT issues can often send an IM to a second-level support person, thus eliminating the need to transfer the call. Tech support people in the field also find that a brief IM can help them out of a jam — and maintain their reputation as wizards.
Decentralized Environments: Hennepin County’s Raabe says she often uses IM from her perch on the 19th floor to communicate with the rest of her team, who work in the basement. Many times, she finds IM helpful as a setup to other forms of communication. “A large number of instant messages simply ask, ‘Do you have time for a quick phone call?’” she says. “Sometimes you just want to know who’s available.”
Mesa’s Parks Department, which manages a variety of recreational programs, used to have both an east and a west district office. Before these offices merged, IM was a valuable communications tool. Says Mesa’s Gardner, “With IM, [employees] could remain in constant real-time contact with staff at the other office to check on enrollment, availability or other questions while talking with a parent or citizen on the phone.”
Serving Citizens: Other organizations also find that providing citizens with immediate answers to questions not only improves satisfaction, but also eliminates the need for time-consuming callbacks. In Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare, for example, when a question from a caller stumps a support worker, the worker has to track down someone who can help — a method that was formerly catch-as-catch-can. But using IM in place of phone tag “has made the department much more efficient,” says Miller.
Even though public IM services from companies such as Yahoo!, AOL and Google are free and ubiquitous, only a small number of state and local governments allow employees to use them. Most forbid the use of public IM services, citing security dangers, privacy concerns, and drops in productivity and resource utilization issues that result as users communicate with family and friends while working.
The state of New Jersey, for example, prohibits the personal use of IM, along with other high-bandwidth applications such as streaming video. (IM requires a lot of network resources since it constantly looks for people on the user’s buddy lists.)
George Rudgers, information technology specialist at Hennepin County, says Lotus Notes is the only authorized IM program for county employees. Also, public IM use would be prohibited under the more general acceptable Internet use policy. “Basically, that [policy] says that unless IT installs an application, it doesn’t belong on your computer,” he explains.
Bob Maley, Pennsylvania’s chief information security officer, sees some advantages in allowing citizens to use public IM to communicate with state employees on business matters. “But we’d like to see a lot more security and identity authentication built into [the public IM systems] before we would consider embracing them,” Maley says.
Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research, a Black Diamond, Wash., market research and consulting firm that focuses on the messaging industry, says that state agencies can use instant messaging’s real-time model to increase efficiency and service. “The presence capability of IM can complement other communications modes, including phone and e-mail, by letting users know who’s available,” he points out.
Despite the potential benefits of IM, Osterman acknowledges its darker side: It can be a conduit for malicious files coming in and private information going out. So agencies need to implement appropriate policies and technologies to protect the organization and its data.
One way to do that is to make sure IM usage is in compliance with the goals of the organization, Osterman says. State officials must determine and spell out in written policies whether IM can be used for personal messages; the legitimate business applications for which IM can be utilized; which employees, groups or agencies can use IM; and what kinds of information can and cannot be shared through the medium.
To enforce these policies and to protect against incoming threats, Osterman recommends that governments use enterprise, rather than public or commercial, IM systems — or to protect the network with a security capability that provides enterprise-grade features for public IM clients. “[With] an in-house system, the technology officer has complete control,” he points out.
For example, the enterprise system can be set to be accessible to only specific users or specific groups. The technology can be limited to local routing within the firewall, and the administrator can maintain audit trails. Most importantly, IM privileges can be terminated when someone leaves or has no more need for it.
In a public IM system, people take their user names with them when they leave. Members of the public or even staff might assume that the former employee is still working for the state or locality, and that can cause serious problems, Osterman warns.
While he realizes that some agencies may want to use public IM to communicate with citizens, Osterman says the best approach is to get an enterprise system or enterprise-grade components that can interface with public systems. Such products are currently available from Barracuda Networks, Microsoft, PGP, Symantec and other firms.