@INFO.POLICY: Banning e-mail'it's not so crazy

Robert Gellman

The city council of Liverpool, England, in July banned the use of e-mail for internal communications. Why? To persuade government staff to start talking to one another.

It seems that 95 percent of internal communications were by e-mail, and that face-to-face contacts had become rare events. The e-mail ban was an experiment to see if government would become more efficient.

That story struck a chord with me. I do more and more of my business by e-mail. In some instances, I have worked for clients without any communication other than e-mail. An assignment comes in and is negotiated by e-mail. The final product is transmitted by e-mail, along with the bill.

Are you an e-mail hermit? Does everyone in your office hide in a cubicle, sending
e-mail to co-workers in adjoining cubicles? Are your work assignments sent and returned by e-mail as well?

I am not sure this situation is entirely good. Don't get me wrong. I would feel seriously deprived if I couldn't do e-mail any more. Indeed, I get nervous when I lose my e-mail connection, even briefly. I wouldn't care as much if my telephone service went out, except that I use a dial-up connection to my Internet provider.

E-mail also lets me keep in touch with colleagues I would probably never communicate with otherwise. For international colleagues especially, it's e-mail or nothing. But even with people I deal with routinely, some nuances are lost in e-mail.

Hearing about someone's vacation or operation isn't always scintillating, but it maintains a human connection that doesn't happen nearly as well through e-mail. Also, direct contact by phone or in person is more likely to resolve things, whereas e-mail tends to bounce back and forth endlessly.

The Liverpool solution is not as extreme as its sounds. The ban on e-mail only applies one day a week, and it does not cover external communications. Trying to do something similar in a federal agency would be doomed to failure, but there is still an idea here.

As a test, I telephoned a friend I hadn't talked to for a while. Our conversation wandered all over the place. I got some fresh gossip, intelligence about legislation he was tracking, a few funny stories about events in his personal life, and more. I hope I offered some useful information and interesting chatter in exchange. None of this would have occurred in e-mail without a specific trigger, but an actual conversation rambles unpredictably and often pleasantly.

So I relearned that telephone lines are useful even when they aren't being used to send e-mail. Think about it. Then make a call or visit a colleague.

Please don't cite this column as an excuse for holding a staff meeting. If the only possible form of human contact is a staff meeting, then give me e-mail any day.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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