Beyond Foley's folly

GCN Insider | Trends and technologies that affect the way government does IT

Like many good technologies, instant messaging snuck into the office through the back door. America Online and Yahoo! clients appeared across countless government employee desktop computer screens, sending worried administrators scurrying to block access (or try to, anyway, as savvy users can easily switch their traffic to some other port). But while the recent scandal surrounding Rep. Mark Foley highlighted the havoc IMs can bring about, managers can miss the fact that messaging can be a productive tool, if properly managed.

For instance, the Risk Management Agency of the Agriculture Department has used IM for internal employee communications since 2003. It's a smart move; the agency has 650 users spread out across 18 offices nationwide. Although RMA doesn't allow employees to use commercial IM clients, the CIO's office saw where IM for office use could communicate data a lot more quickly than even e-mail or phone calls. 'We utilize it a lot,' admitted Vondie O'Conner, chief information officer for the RMA.

RMA's official messaging system, available for all employees, is built from Microsoft Live Communication Server from Microsoft Corp. The agency also uses IM Manager from Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif., to scan for viruses and inappropriate content. All messaging conversations are now kept for 30 days in a MySQL database, so they can be reviewed by the participants. Administrators can also generate security reports through IM Manager.

'IM is growing faster than e-mail ever did, and within a few years it will outpace e-mail as the favorite correspondence system,' said Patricia Franks, who is on the standards development committee of the Association for Information Management, which is crafting a set of messaging standards for enterprises.

Franks spoke at the Digital Government Institute's Electronic Records Management conference, held last summer in Washington. Adoption is almost inevitable, she felt. Even if an organization itself doesn't accept IM, younger workers will call for its use. Such employees 'will feel very stifled if they feel there is a better way to do things,' she said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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