Belfast Telegraph

Civil servant cyberslackers

By Adrian Rutherford

Civil servants have been busy shopping, reading football stories and even planning holidays in the sun while they were supposed to be working, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

An investigation by this newspaper has discovered that staff at Stormont departments have been visiting tens of thousands of internet websites which are not relevant to their jobs.

Instead of focusing on their duties, ‘cyberslacking’ officials have spent time monitoring football scores, booking trips away and shopping on Amazon and eBay.

The details are revealed in documents detailing the websites most frequently visited by civil servants during the first half of the year.

Online shopping sites such as newlook.com and littlewoods.com have been visited thousands of times — in many cases far more often than important Executive websites.

The details were released after a Freedom of Information request by this newspaper.

Robert Oxley, the campaign manager of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said he was shocked by the findings of our investigation.

He said: “It looks like civil servants in Northern Ireland have been spending a lot of time surfing websites that clearly have nothing to do with their jobs.

“While many staff work hard and diligently, it’s important that the taxpayers are able to scrutinise what’s been done during time they are paying for.

“When websites such as newlook.co.uk come significantly higher in the usage table than important Government sites, taxpayers will rightly wonder what’s going on at the departments.”

All civil servants are issued with guidelines which warn their actions must not waste time or resources, and are required to acknowledge they have read and will adhere to accepted internet use policy.

However, breakdowns of the departments’ 100 most visited websites between January and June reveal many web visits that are not relevant to their work.

According to one document, staff at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure made 122,000 visits to littlewoods.com in that period, and a further 108,000 visits to online book and DVD store Amazon.

Staff also frequently visited icelolly.com, a site specialising in cheap sunshine holidays, tripadvisor.co.uk, Flybe.com and easyjet.co.uk.

The Belfast Telegraph was listed 13th, receiving almost 140,000 hits.

Meanwhile, officials at the Department of Health made numerous visits to starstills.com, which sells posters, photographs and life-size cardboard cutouts of movie stars.

Among the websites most frequently accessed by all departments were Facebook, the BBC and eBay.

Links to sports websites including Sky Sports, Liverpool FC, Celtic FC and the GAA were also common.

Topping the list in most cases was the search engine Google.

The departments pointed out that staff are permitted to use the web for personal use in their own time.

Case study: Dept of Culture, Arts and Leisure

Among the top viewed websites by staff at the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure were Amazon, Littlewoods.com and eBay.

At number 24 in the list was icelolly.com, which allows visitors to search and compare prices for bargain holidays in the sun.

Analysis shows it was visited 74,126 times by staff.

Airline websites Flybe.com (19,682 hits) and easyjet.com (18,632 hits) also feature, as does holiday advice site tripadvisor.co.uk (26,187 hits).

More than 108,000 visits were made to online book and DVD store Amazon, with another 42,000 hits on newlook.com and 31,887 visits to social buying website groupon.co.uk.

Several online banking websites are also listed, including alliance-leicester.co.uk and |ulsterbankanytimebanking.|co.uk.

One of the more bizarre entries is kirkintillochemerald. co.uk which is an online chat forum about Celtic FC and Irish life.

Several sports sites also appear on the list, including the Liverpool FC website and Skysports.com, however, these may be for work |purposes.

Case study: Dept of Health

Holiday and shopping companies were among the websites most frequently visited by staff at the Department of Health.

Included in the top 25 were Amazon, Littlewoods and propertynews.com, while New Look’s online store, Facebook and auction site play.com also ranked highly.

The department did not detail the number of visits to each site.

Among the top 100 were Skysports.com and gaa.ie, the official GAA website.

Holiday pages included flybe.com, easyjet.com,|thomson.co.uk and |tripadvisor.co.uk

Analysis also reveals thousands of visits were made to starstills.com, an online sales site specialising in movie posters and life-size cardboard cutouts.

Some staff at the department also appear to be on the lookout for new jobs — with recruitment site nijobfinder. co.uk ranked 70th.

Other websites frequently visited by civil servants included groupon.co.uk, auto trader.co.uk and argos.co.uk.

The do’s and don’t’s of online activity... what the formal guidelines say

Guidelines setting out the Civil Service’s policy on acceptable internet use are issued to all members of staff.

A copy of the handbook, obtained by the Belfast Telegraph, states that staff must ensure “their actions do not waste time or resources”.

It adds: “Internet and email facilities can deliver significant business benefits and advantages when used appropriately and responsibly.

“However, careless or negligent use may waste resources and cause financial loss and damage to reputation.”

All staff who use departmental internet facilities are required to acknowledge that they have read, understood and will adhere to the accepted policy.

The handbook states the internet should be used “to research relevant and potentially relevant information sources in carrying out their duties”.

It states that internet games and chat forums are banned.

A section of the handbook also deals with personal use, which it defines as “any use of the internet or email facilities that does not stem from a requirement directly relating to the officer’s official duties”.

The handbook warns civil servants that the internet may not be used for personal purposes during working hours. “Departments and agencies may permit staff to use official facilities for personal use, in their own time, providing that such use does not compromise the security of official data.

“Own time is when an individual is not on duty, such as before signing in or after signing out, or during lunch or other officially sanctioned breaks. Individuals must also apply for permission, in accordance with relevant departmental procedures, prior to undertaking personal use.”

The handbook adds that the internet must not be used to carry out activities for personal gain.

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