GCN test: Agencies vary in handling of online queries

The promise of a more consumer-friendly government hinges on an important factor:
e-mail.


The speed with which agencies responded to e-mail messages sent to their public
information links on Web sites varied widely in an informal GCN test. GCN sent messages to
26 agencies seeking information on fiscal 1999 budget requests. A dozen agencies responded
almost immediately, but 10 agencies had not responded after two weeks.


Using an America Online account that would not reveal GCN as the source of the e-mail
messages, the newspaper posed an identical question to the 26 agencies: “Where can I
get more information on the department’s fiscal 1999 budget?”


Admittedly, the world of the Web and e-mail resembles the wilderness: There are few
formal policies or procedures on dealing with e-mail questions from the public.


“I think it’s a big problem for everyone,” said Richard N. Kellett,
director of the General Services Administration’s Office of Information Technology
Emerging Information Technology Policies Division. “In most cases, there’s no
structure in place as to who the e-mail should be referred to.”


Many organizations have not created procedures for handling e-mail because it is often
treated more informally than other correspondence, said V.A. Shive, president and chief
executive officer of General Interactive Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. The company makes a
product that can respond to e-mail automatically.


Organizations must decide how important they consider e-mail, Shive said. “Many of
the organizations we deal with have not taken e-mail seriously,” he said. “For
most of our initial clients, it was an afterthought.”


In many cases, e-mail adds up to a fraction of the correspondence an agency receives,
he said. Because most e-mail is directed to specific people within an agency, it is rarely
tracked or monitored, even if comes to the agency via a Web hyperlink.


The situation isn’t any better in the private sector, said Steven Senz, director
of operations for GTE Corp., which recently demonstrated its e-mail response system at the


Federal Webmasters Forum. For most organizations, e-mail response is often filed in the
too-hard-to-do category, Senz said.


Few agencies, however, see a flood of e-mail via their Web sites. A Treasury Department
spokeswoman said the Office of Public Correspondence receives roughly seven e-mail
messages a week.


The Defense Department’s DefenseLink site at http://www.defenselink.mil
receives about a dozen messages each day, said Carlynn Thompson, director of research,
development and acquisition support for the Defense Technical Information Center, which
maintains many department Web sites.


Agencies said they use several methods to direct questions to the right person. Many
agencies, such as Treasury, treat e-mail as they do other correspondence.


Agencies often try to delineate between technical and policy questions. The White House
provides an online form for citizens to e-mail President Clinton or Vice President Gore.
The webmasters note, however, that the systems staff only reads questions about technical
aspects of the site.


“The White House Web team does not answer or forward e-mail,” a notice on the
site reads.


The Education Department’s home page provides an e-mail link for general inquiries
or comments, but the department also provides a link for feedback on the Web site itself.


Some agencies direct e-mail queries to specific offices. The Housing and Urban
Development Department and the Veterans Affairs Department list categories for routing
e-mail to offices within in the departments.


HUD webmaster Candis B. Harrison said she gets between 25 and 50 e-mail messages each
day. She answers about two-thirds of them and refers the rest to the Web manager, she
said.


The webmaster is the primary recipient of e-mail at most agencies. “All roads end
with me,” said Ethan Weiner, project manager for the Energy Department’s Web
site.


The best way to route and handle e-mail is through site design, said Vic Powell, the
Agriculture Department’s webmaster.


“If we were Walt Disney and our business was entertainment, we would have a
different design,” he said. “Our bag is information. The people who come to our
site are looking for information.”


Therefore, the site content is driven by the information citizens seek, he said.


Any webmaster that gets a lot of e-mail is either in the midst of a hot topic or the
Web site is not properly organized, said Powell, who receives 40 to 50 e-mails weekly.


“If an agency is getting a lot of mail, what that would tell me is that we’re
not giving [visitors] the opportunity to find what they need,” he said.


The e-mail that goes directly to specific personnel and is not tracked or monitored is
a bigger problem, Shiva said. In those cases, agencies “probably have no idea as to
how many e-mails are coming in,” he said.


Organizations need to monitor both incoming and outgoing comments, Shiva said. And
responses can be particularly important for government agencies, where responses can be
viewed as official documents.   

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