Answer the e-mail call

Aah, e-mail.

Not so long ago, managers had trouble keeping up with all their phone calls. Then came
ubiquitous faxes and overnight packages.

Today, of course, we’re bombarded with e-mail. Smart companies encourage e-mail

communications from customers and have the means to handle e-mail. For example, many
software vendors respond to technical support questions via e-mail. But federal agencies
appear ill-equipped to provide answers to citizens’ e-mailed questions.

This is something to ponder as groups such as the Chief Information Officers Council
and the National Partnership for Reinventing Government push on to create a digital,
online government.

GCN reporter Chris Dorobek recently sent an identical query about the fiscal 1999
budget to the e-mail addresses posted on the Web pages of 26 agencies. He used his own
America Online account so the mail appeared to be coming from Joe Q. Public [GCN, Sept. 7, Page 1]. Some responded within a day. Others
hadn’t answered within two weeks.

Further research showed that agencies lack systems for responding to e-mail, such as
automatic-response bots. Few have any policy for who is responsible for responding to Web
mail. In many cases, it defaults to—you guessed it—the webmaster.

Currently, the volume of e-mail that agencies receive is small. The DefenseLink site
run by the Defense Department, which answered in one day, receives only about a dozen
e-mail messages daily. The Treasury Department, which didn’t respond, reports
receiving a handful per week.

But what if agencies started receiving hundreds or thousands of e-mail
inquiries—each one from someone expecting an answer? As things stand now, large
e-mail volumes would hamstring efforts at restoring the government’s credibility.

Agencies aren’t set up for responding to individuals electronically. Web sites,
and their embedded e-mail links, are more like visual broadcasts than person-to-person
channels. Allowing citizens to communicate directly with federal personnel would only
shift the problem around.

An e-mail coming into an agency is potentially both a query and an official record. As
e-mail becomes a linchpin in the machinery of digital government, the volume will likely
increase. Agencies need policies on dealing with e-mail, and they need the technology
infrastructure to back up those policies.

Thomas R. Temin
[email protected]  


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