Cell-phone shirkers and the fix | Daily News

Cell-phone shirkers and the fix

The Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs has stated recently that access to social media will be restricted to government servants on the job. However, as you’d expect, the State sector unions are up in arms.

This was common practice in most countries. Access to Facebook etc. is restricted on Company computers and access during working hours is curtailed by operation of Company regulations across many continents irrespective of national borders.

But it’s easy in most locations because people abide by Company regulations by and large. Or so we are told. But in Sri Lanka, the public service administrations found that there is no way access to social media can be officially restricted when Company employees’ computers have pre-installed restrictions, but yet all those are circumvented when the employees use their own phones.

In other words they go from the big computer to ‘small computer’ when they want to. The small one is of course on their phones and they are not using wi-fi, so there is no way that access to specific sites can be banned, when they are using their own SIM cards and their own data.

Officialdom is stumped. It’s a bit unclear how access to private phones with private data accounts are blocked when it comes to workers, say, in the US. But here, one solution in the public service had been to ask the employees to surrender their phones before they begin working.


They have to make sure that their phones are kept under lock and key in the custody of some sort of office Manager. But the unions don’t like that because phones are used for other purposes as well.

Surely, they would say, employees should be able to receive calls from home where there may be an ongoing emergency? They’d say these types of restrictions are in the league of human rights violations.

But the Secretary to the Ministry knows better. Allow phones, and government servants play truant, he has opined. They hide behind desks and ogle women appearing live on Facebook. Well, that, or whatever.

Most probably they watch the popular viral videos of the day. A little bit of pornography, maybe, in some cases, while the files pile up on their desks and the public awaits, fretting until the gods come down from their gilded cubicles and attend to their crying needs …

It’s a modern day dystopian fiasco, but who would have thought? It’s a real problem because the unions have got involved and have taken up the position that accessing social media is but just one aspect of government service issues, or words to that effect.

If there is no way by which account access cannot be stopped, the administrators feel they have to take a drastic step. Some have in certain departments and branch offices already taken things to the extreme and resorted to demanding custody of the cellular phones of government servant employees in their offices.

This is a drastic step, and unions notwithstanding, the Secretary feels it’s the only way the problem can be minimized. But this is not the way to police adults even though some government service staff may be notorious for being callous in the treatment of members of the public who line up for various services such as issuance of passports, for instance, to take one stray example.

As it is the public has had problems with government servants sleeping on the job or doing the minimum and working to rule even when they are not on strike. Now they have the additional issue of some staffers hiding behind their cellphones watching YouTube or scrolling through Facebook, taking on the job shirking to a new level.

But if the administrators remain determined to stamp out this trend, how would they set about it without taking the ‘Montessori route’ of confiscating cellphones? This surely is the most disrespectful solution from the point of view of the workers, and unions.

These days cell phones are used for everything from contacting the children after school, to receiving emergency messages from home. Besides this, some public servants use their cellphones for enhancing the quality of their work in serving the public. This may be relatively rare, but ‘call me on my private cell-phone’ is sometimes a solution when quick fixes are called for with regard to public service issues that need instant attention.


What’s the logic then in confiscating cellphones even if it’s deemed to be in the best interests of the public? There has to be a better solution this day and age, even though these problems are relatively new-fangled.

For a country that solved the fuel-rationing stampede that led to kilometre long queues by introducing a QR code that everyone quickly adapted to, there ought to be a more tech-savvy solution for the aforementioned problem of Government employees playing truant, accessing their social media when they are supposed to be working.

There are apps for this kind of thing. The administrators could require staffers to download an app that monitors their Facebook and other social media usage during office hours. Downloading the app of course has to be made mandatory, and the senior-administration would be able to have access to the data that the app gathers simultaneous to its access by staff during office hours. In other words if staffers access Facebook the administration should be able to keep a tab on ‘for how many hours’ and ‘how regularly’, by sharing the app on their own consoles.

This is the enlightened solution that would avoid a cheap confrontation over an issue that has cropped up due to the technological conveniences identifiable with the current times. Relatively new situations need new solutions and not a fallback into the old absurd fix of reading the riot act and asking folk to hand over their phones, as if they were Montessori children that had to hand over their toys before class.

No doubt there was a flip side that made this an issue. There would have been glaring instances of irresponsible use of social media by some government service staff. The government servant’s cadre is top-heavy in any event, and a lot of the recruits have been used to a pampered existence. It’s a fact that a great deal of them got into the service through political patronage to fill ‘vacancies’ that didn’t exist, if the reader gets the drift. The public service became the slush pile through which politicians could reward their supporters by giving them government service jobs with relatively cushy perks and good salaries.


This of course is a major problem in these times because the State — meaning the ordinary taxpayer — spends an enormous amount of money for the upkeep of government servants that are sometimes — some would say most of the time — spectacularly unproductive.

But that doesn’t mean that whatever is productive in the government service amounts to nothing. Those who work on the staff cadre have a right to be treated with dignity. Confiscating phones seems to be a solution quite out of step with the times, not to mention the technology.

If government service staff cannot be trusted to self-regulate their social media access as adults would be expected to, so be it; there are always the incorrigibles who would misuse their privileges. But people are tech-savvy and the fuel QR code proves it.

A monitoring app would be the solution. Also, the authorities could care to have a peek at how other similarly placed countries addressed the issue. How did the Bangladeshis do it, or is it a problem there? How about the immediate neighbour India?

There has to be a better solution than demanding the phones be turned over. What next they may think — will we be asked to declare the contents of our lunch, or give the boss the calorie count?

Technology has its upside and the new communication devices have enabled staffers to work from home in emergencies, as it was apparent in the duration of the raging COVID pandemic. In this context, without a by your leave, tech-savvy adults can’t be deprived of their phones. It would be as if work from home was made into ‘work from your cage’. Let there be a more tech-friendly fix.

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