Keeping Time

An auditing system helps city workers regulate time spent on the Internet and reminds them that the boss is keeping track too.

by / December 4, 2005
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, 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 managers want, the system can automatically turn off the timer on a workstation when an employee goes to lunch or is otherwise off duty. "The system continues to log where they've been, because you don't want people going to inappropriate sites," said Fair, but it doesn't count that time in their usage total. Managers may also turn the timer off when employees visit internal sites that they are encouraged to use during the workday, such as the organization's human resources site.

While Minitrax allows supervisors to peer electronically over workers' shoulders, officials at AI and Carrollton say the product succeeds mainly because it encourages workers to regulate their own Internet use. "The clock itself is probably one of the most valuable parts of it," Fairless said. "Its presence makes you more conscious that you may not be using your personal time efficiently. Plus that clock is also a reminder that wherever you're going is being logged, and your supervisor has access to that log."

The latest version of Minitrax can list the sites an employee has visited by category. "This is a sports site, this is a 'sin' site, this is a bank," Fair said. "Most customers are not too concerned about dissecting it that finely. They just want people to be responsible."
In Carrollton, even the city manager has Minitrax installed on his computer. Martin said the system keeps him honest. "That little clock running on the bottom of my screen, I hate it, because it keeps reminding me, 'Get off that Internet and get back to work, dummy!' It's cut my time on the Internet by at least a third."

Mixed Reviews
Minitrax drew mixed reviews from employees when Carrollton first turned it on, Fairless said. "Some considered it a privacy issue. Some of the supervisors thought it was a great, powerful tool. Others just thought it was something else to clutter up their day."

There were complaints at first about Big Brother watching over employees, Martin said, but that died immediately. Minitrax is primarily a self-management tool, he said.

Employees who need to use the Internet to do their jobs had their own doubts about Minitrax. "I think at first we were concerned that we were going to be running out of time and getting into trouble, especially when we were doing research," said Martha Baucom, a management analyst in Carrollton's Accounting and Budget Division.

Once she understood how the system would be used, though, her worries disappeared. Baucom's Internet usage varies, rising to as many as eight or 10 hours a week when she's working on a research-heavy project. Her official online budget is three hours a week, but that limit doesn't pose any problems, she said. "Once we get past that, as long as we're going to legitimate sites and that's what the supervisor is viewing, then everything is fine."

AI said Minitrax has cut Internet usage by Carrollton city employees by 1.5 hours per employee per day, based on measurements made before and after the city installed the software. It said the time recaptured is worth $4.8 million per year.

"Of course that's soft dollar. I wish I could cut that out of the budget and send everybody home an hour and a half early to save the money, but it doesn't work like that," Martin said. Still, with recent staff cuts and a tight budget, "Productivity and doing more with less is at the top of our agenda," he said. "Soft dollars do add up. If we're able to get people where they can work and not be distracted, that's a real benefit."
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs