Congress improves at managing e-mail

'It is a marriage of technology and process,' says John Pole, IT director for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) 'People have to realize that e-mail is just as representative of constituents as postal mail and dealing with e-mail allows for a quicker turnaround time.'

Laurie DeWitt

The Senate last month decided not to renew its contract with EchoMail Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., for e-mail filtering software. Instead, IT managers will depend on the Senatewide deployment of Microsoft Exchange and Outlook to better manage the 88,000 e-mail messages the Senate receives each day.

The enterprisewide installation, Senate IT managers said, will help members curb the amount of spam they receive each day.

Originally, IT officials in the Senate's Sergeant at Arms Office hoped EchoMail's Customer Care software, which sorts constituent e-mail and provides automated responses based on rules set by each senator's staff, would help lawmakers manage their electronic correspondence. But only 17 members implemented the software, and the Sergeant at Arms Office, which oversees IT policy and contracting for the Senate, decided not to renew the contract.

'There were no problems with the product, but a lot of what the software did could also be done' by using the Constituent Correspondence Management System (CCMS), a database already in use by Senate offices that organizes e-mail and postal correspondence, a staff member said. 'It was too much product in this case, and with Exchange coming in, it could do some of the same things EchoMail does.'

The staff member said senators used EchoMail for about two years.

Senate IT workers have installed Exchange in about 42 members' offices and hope to put the software in all 100 offices by Dec. 31. Senators had used Lotus cc:Mail, but IBM Corp. stopped supporting the product more than a year ago.

Exchange and Outlook will let systems administrators filter e-mail through senators' system servers by setting up rules to search the body of messages and send correspondence to the appropriate folders, said Ngozi Pole, IT director for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

'EchoMail did not have tight integration with our CCMS, but Exchange and Outlook will be a great fit,' he said.

Pole said this is one of the most secure implementations of Exchange he has ever heard of. The Sergeant at Arms staff turned off the autoreply feature; it does not allow bad e-mail addresses to bounce back to the sender; and there will be a limit on the use of public folders and on the number of e-mail accounts a user can have.

Empty inboxes

But Senate systems workers have faced technical and security problems in implementing the new software, which caused delays in receiving and sending e-mail, sometimes up to four or five hours.

'Many people go through these same growing pains, but I'm sure the problems will be worked out,' Pole said.

Congress has been working to improve its management of e-mail for years, and only recently have members gotten better, according to a report by the Congress Online Project, a joint research project of the Congressional Management Foundation and George Washington University.

The report, E-mail Overload in Congress'Managing a Communications Crisis, found that members are doing a better job of managing the increasing volume of e-mail. The report said Congress received 117 million e-mail messages in 2001, with the House receiving about 234,245 messages a day.

Reynold Schweickhardt, director of technology for the House Administration Committee, said members and staff have learned about the tools that software offers as a way to deal with spam.

Schweickhardt also said that members are using Web forms to reduce the glut of e-mail.

'We can structure the input opportunities so information comes in a way we can manage better,' he said. 'Structured information can increase productivity and let staff members answer e-mail in a more timely fashion.'

Pole said Kennedy's office uses Web forms to handle common constituent requests such as for flags or tours.

'It is a marriage of technology and process,' Pole said. 'People have to realize that e-mail is just as representative of constituents as postal mail and dealing with e-mail allows for a quicker turnaround time.'

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