Computer policies should clearly identify appropriate e-mail use.

In light of recent reports about e-mail misuse by local government officials and employees, cities and counties should make sure that they have developed computer policies that clearly identify appropriate e-mail use. More importantly, local governments need to educate elected officials and employees about those policies to ensure that e-mail systems are not abused.

Clearwater, Fla., has experienced widely publicized incidents of e-mail abuse. In 1999, the acting information technology director resigned following allegations that he used a private e-mail account to send sexually provocative statements to a city employee. Early in 2000, the supervisor of the solid waste department was accused of racial discrimination because he e-mailed a questionable joke to a co-worker. The incidents touched off internal investigations and led to a series of revisions of the city's e-mail policy.

Even so, in October 2000, the city's planning and development administrator was forced to resign after using the city's computer system to send e-mails containing improper jokes and conversations about his private storage business. As a result, the St. Petersburg Times requested that the planning administrator and the assistant city manager (a recipient of the off-color jokes) release e-mail records from the previous year.

Before giving the records to the newspaper, city officials allowed the men to remove personal e-mail. The newspaper sued, arguing that state law classifies all e-mails sent and received on city computers and read by city employees as public records.

Clearwater's struggle with its computer policy is not unique. A recent survey conducted by PTI and the International City/County Management Association indicates that 61 percent of the responding jurisdictions have or plan to create an e-mail use policy to regulate employees' use of e-mail. Local government e-mail use policies should address:

  • Message content. E-mail messages should contain information related only to government business. Messages that contain sexually explicit materials, obscene and discriminatory language or solicitation for commerical ventures or religious causes should be prohibited. Employees should not use their government e-mail addresses in connection with private online portals, chat rooms, bulletin boards or to receive personal material, such as, but not limited to, information on stocks and bank records. If the e-mail system is used for sending personal messages, the employee waives any claims to privacy.

  • Public records. Employees must realize that, even when a message is “deleted,” it can be re-created. Therefore, no messages are considered private. E-mail should not be used to transmit confidential information without advice from the city or county counsel.

  • After crafting clear rules for e-mail use, local governments should educate all officials and employees about the rules. In San Diego, for example, employees are informed that electronic records are subject to the mandatory public disclosure requirements of the California Public Records Act. “E-mail is subject to all the same laws, policies and practices that apply to other means of communication, such as the telephone and paper documents,” says Dianah Neff, deputy city manager and CIO for San Diego.

    To educate its employees and officials, San Diego offers two-hour quarterly sessions about e-mail and Internet use that new employees must attend. The city attorney's office trains elected officials as part of their new orientation training.

    In addition to providing the sessions, the city has posted a PowerPoint presentation with the information on its intranet, and it has created a video on e-mail etiquette that can be checked out and viewed at any time. As a result of training, San Diego has seen only minimal misuse of the e-mail system or the Internet, Neff says.

    Bowen is director of online services for Washington, D.C.-based Public Technology Inc.(PTI), and Gold is the organization's director of communications.