REQUESTED BY: Bruce T. Rowe, Director of the Bureau of Family Health Services, Nebraska Department of Health
QUESTION: May a state employee who is an officer in an association make occasional use of state owned computers for association purposes?
The Nutrition Division Director of the Nebraska Department of Health is a registered dietician. She is also an officer in the Lincoln Dietetic Association. The association is composed of registered dieticians who are interested in promoting good dietary habits among the population.
The Nutrition Division is charged with two major responsibilities. The first is the administration of federally funded supplemental food programs. The second is the planning, coordination and implementation of nutrition interventions for health risk reduction.
One of the federally funded supplemental food programs is the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. Through subgrants with local agencies, the program serves women, infants, children, and the elderly. The Nutrition Division manages the subgrants and, among its other duties, prepares nutrition education material for participants, designs outreach activities, and oversees the quality of program services.
Another federally funded program administered by the Nutrition Division is the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Again, the Nutrition Division manages this program through subgrants with local agencies. The Nutrition Division develops and oversees the implementation of criteria for nutritional risk screening, nutrition education protocols and standards for prescribing supplemental foods.
Pursuant to its charge that it plan, coordinate and implement nutrition interventions for health risk reduction, the Nutrition Division provides technical support for the State Wellness Program in the area of nutrition screening and education. It provides the nutrition component of the diabetes program and participates in the Nutrition Task Force for Children with Special Health Care Needs. The Nutrition Division also conducts needs assessments, analyzes data, and initiates dialogue regarding public health nutrition issues. It provides consultation to other divisions, agencies and providers regarding these issues.
Section 49-14,101(4) generally provides that no public official or public employee shall use personnel, resources, property, or funds under that individual's official care and control other than in accordance with law. That is, government personnel, resources, property, and funds are for government purposes only. Thus, the main consideration in responding to the question before us is whether the use of state computers on behalf of a private association ultimately serves a state governmental purpose.
It is not unusual for public officials and public employees to be members of associations or organizations that relate to the public duties of the official or employee. It is not unusual for state agencies to be members of organizations which in some way relate to the duties of the agency. In order to determine if the use of state resources in connection with a private organization helps to fulfill a state function, one must look to the duties of the state agency or the division thereof and the nature or activities of the private organization.
In the matter before us, the Nutrition Division is obliged to plan and prepare nutrition education material and nutrition protocols. It is required to design outreach activities. It is required to initiate dialogue on public health nutrition issues. An organization such as the Lincoln Dietetics Association is potentially a source of information for the preparation of the educational materials and protocols. It can be a forum for outreach and the initiation of dialogue. To the extent that the employee's use of state computers on behalf of the association is part of the process by which the agency attempts to fulfill some of its duties, the use of the state computers is permissible. However, the approval of the immediate supervisor or the governing body is required.
Some distinguishing comments are required. The simple fact that a state employee belongs to a private organization does not justify the use of state resources by the state employee on behalf of the organization. If the association of the state employee to the organization is primarily for the benefit of the employee and only incidentally benefits the state agency, state resources may not be used on behalf of the private organization in any manner. Even when the association of the state employee with the private organization primarily benefits the state agency, the use of state resources on behalf of the private association must be occasional. The business of private associations should not be run out of government offices using government personnel and government resources.