Even a well meaning government executive like Leonard Martin, city manager of Carrollton, Texas, squanders time on the Web now and then during business hours. "I tend to get on the Internet and start reading stuff," he said. Most of it relates to his work, but some of it he simply finds interesting.

Then there are employees who really abuse their Internet access on the job. "We have seen people running eBay businesses four to five hours a day from their cubicles," said Deon Fair, chief executive officer of Accountability International (AI), a Dallas-based firm that offers software to manage the time employees spend online.

A survey of 10,000 people, conducted in spring 2005 by America Online and Salary.com, found that workers waste an average of 2.09 hours each workday. Nearly 45 percent of those polled listed Web surfing as their top distraction.

Martin is one local government official who made an effort to keep his employees -- and himself -- away from temptation. Working as city manager of Edmond, Okla., several years ago, Martin met two of the principals of AI through his membership in the Innovation Groups, an organization of local governments. He agreed to make Edmond a beta site for AI's new product, Minitrax.

"We started running it in test mode, and we were shocked," Martin recalled. "The IT director put it on eight or 10 machines of people who we were pretty confident would not surf [the Web]." But when city officials compared Internet usage on those machines before and after they installed the software, they found that using the system cut the time individual employees spent online by 50, 75 or even 90 percent, he said.

When Martin moved to Carrollton, he agreed to install Minitrax and help AI further refine the product. "In the testing we did early on, there was about a 50 percent overall reduction in the number of sites visited," he said.

Carrollton has found Minitrax to be the best way to control Internet usage, said Lon Fairless, the city's IT manager. "The only other way we had to manage that resource was to use the logging features in our firewall, which are awkward and hard to use." A member of the IT department can query the firewall software about Internet activity by particular users during a particular period, but "the report is a big, raw pile of data. It's not user-friendly," he said.

How Much Time, and Where?

Minitrax consists of two elements: a piece of AI software installed on each end-user's computer to track Internet usage, and a hosted service that compiles audit reports and provides the data to managers. The software tracks time spent online and creates a log of sites visited. A digital clock at the bottom of the screen lets users know exactly how much time they spent online in a defined period -- typically a workweek.

Organizations can track usage in two ways. At some, including the city of Carrollton, supervisors decide how much time users may spend on the Internet in a week, based on the requirements of their job. "The system counts that time up and provides messages to the user and to management when those limits are exceeded," Fair said. The other option is to simply measure time spent on the Internet, without budgeting a specific number of hours for each employee.

Supervisors receive periodic reports showing how much time each employee in their charge spent on the Internet and detailing which sites the workers visited. "Some of our supervisors maybe look at it a little more diligently than others, but it's a tool at their disposal," Fairless said.

The system doesn't distinguish between sites that employees visit for business and personal reasons, but supervisors can tell the difference by scanning the reports, Fair said. If

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer