State finds that e-mail lists can advance the cause of diplomacy

State finds that e-mail lists can advance the cause of diplomacy

Timely, relevant information is tailored by subject and region for receipt by a worldwide audience

By Pamela Houghtaling

Special to GCN

Each night, the State Department disseminates policy news to internal and external audiences around the world via electronic mailing lists.

Chip Harman, a webmaster in the Office of International Information Programs at State, started using Listserv software from L-Soft International Inc. of Landover, Md., to reach a wider external audience by tailoring mail lists to specific regions or themes.

The mission of the office, which was part of the U.S. Information Agency before its merger with State, is to present official information'policy statements, speeches and reports'to foreign audiences of journalists and senior government and corporate executives. Harman described it as an overseas press office for State and therefore the federal government.

Harman takes the documents from a diplomatic Web site and delivers them directly to subscribers' desktop PCs. 'Using a mailing list gives you the assurance that people have a high level of interest in your message and are reading your material,' he said.

Materials can go out to the various lists manually or automatically as they are posted on the Web site. Editors of specialized thematic lists sometimes send messages alerting subscribers about how to retrieve large files rather than automatically sending them.

Bandwidth issues arise in sending documents to international addresses, however. Harman said he must be sensitive to the volume of materials transmitted. North America and Europe have fast networks, but the bandwidth available in Latin America and Africa is much lower, he said.

Extra credit

Listserv, the 1986 brainchild of 19-year-old college student Eric Thomas, automates server handling of additions and deletions and other list administration chores. Thomas founded L-Soft to license Listserv and provide hosting services. The latest version, Listserv 1.8d, has a Web interface.

Harman said he chose to outsource his mailing list deliveries to L-Soft's ListPlex hosting service. Maintaining a list server in-house is fairly complex, he said. Also, L-Soft had technical support available worldwide, and 'the sun is always rising on one of our users,' he said.

Harman prefers to focus his time on content and matching the audience to the appropriate information. It's easy to create a list, he said, but much harder to keep it alive and sustain the audience, because information must remain timely and relevant.

Automated procedures minimize the maintenance, subscriber problems and error messages that arise from thousands of e-mail messages being transmitted every night. If one country's primary network goes down, Harman said, he does not receive a flood of error messages but only one summary message. The help messages are tailored to specific lists and audiences.

State's Office of Logistics Management created its own electronic mailing list for internal discussion and chose to maintain it under Microsoft Internet Information Server, used for the office's page on the State intranet.

Mike Rafferty, director of acquisition management and a nontechnical foreign service officer, said he pushed the idea of an electronic list because he wanted to join one himself. The list fostered an online community for sharing information and solving problems. Rafferty's list now has 270 logistics management subscribers at various embassies.

The Office of Logistics Management provides procurement and transportation services to the embassies. News of the list spread by word of mouth to the point that Rafferty was hosting six lists on his Web server for other functional groups at State'from general services to finance personnel. Rafferty said the new list owners soon learned how to configure their own lists.

Carol LeBlanc, the office's systems analyst and list administrator, said she found the software easy to learn and maintain. 'Once a list is configured, there's not a lot to do,' she said.

She said she has not encountered any great technical difficulties as long as subscribers use Microsoft Outlook as their e-mail program. Most subscribers run Microsoft Windows NT, she said, but they can join the list from other platforms'Compaq OpenVMS, Unix, Linux and Windows 9x.

Mail's in

Rafferty said he considered outsourcing the list-hosting tasks but saw it as adding a level of difficulty for his target subscribers. He wanted to make hosting as transparent as possible. Messages arrive like any other e-mail on the informal and unclassified lists, raising security concerns.

By keeping his lists on the internal Web server, Rafferty said, they remain safe within State's closed network.

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