Protect your agency's employees from e-mail abuse

Walter R. Houser

I'm as strong an advocate as you'll find for providing customer service via the Internet. For example, unless there is a better person to contact, I include my e-mail address on all the Web pages I prepare.

But that means I receive a lot of e-mail, much of it having nothing to do with my agency or me.

I am concerned about the damage that can be done when lists of federal employee e-mail addresses fall into the wrong hands. After all, federal workers have a right to personal privacy even while they perform their public jobs.

Federal employees I know have been harassed and stalked electronically. To minimize this, my agency has established generic mailboxes that both insulate employees from abuse and improve customer service.

Using these pseudonymous addresses, agency employees can more easily and safely perform the challenging job of responding to customers.

These frontline people deserve the assurance that their contacts will be kept within the context of their job duties and not spill over into their personal lives.

Advertising is another problem. I know by experience that advertisers flood federal agencies with e-mail messages. Automated software harvests my address along with thousands of others from agency Web sites. The resulting messages need to be directed to the appropriate parties, not to every federal employee with an e-mail account. Employees need the option to subscribe or not, but this isn't yet guaranteed in most agencies.

Catch flies with honey

I participate on the Internet Engineering Task Force's working group on the responsible use of the Internet. Advertisers and agency information technology managers should read the task force's latest document, How to Advertise Responsibly Using E-mail and Newsgroups, at Advertisers should follow these guidelines to perhaps generate more sales and less ill will.

Furthermore, agencies with an interest in personnel retention should realize they can be threatened by outside recruitment efforts using lists of e-mail addresses for scientists, physicians, nurses, computer specialists and other professionals in hard-to-fill positions.

Agencies can justify withholding employee e-mail addresses by citing two exemptions under the Privacy Act: Section 552(b)(2) and (b)(6) of U.S. Code Title 5. The first exemption permits withholding information that is related solely to internal federal personnel rules and practices, and the second permits withholding personnel, medical and similarly sensitive files, the disclosure of which would constitute an invasion of personal privacy.

If agencies are responsive to their customers, there will be little legitimate need for public lists of employee e-mail addresses.

A better approach is for program managers to select points of contact responsible for providing accurate responses within 24 hours to correspondence received via e-mail or links to e-mail on agency Web sites.

It is important to supply coverage of external and internal inquiries at least 24 hours a day Monday through Friday, if not all the time. This gives true Internet economy service and reflects well on the agency. Full-time coverage requires several employees to monitor public e-mail addresses.

Another advantage to generic, as opposed to personal, e-mail addresses is that they are more convenient to set up so different people can monitor them. To help customers through your Web site, divide documents into two categories. Primary documents are policies, press releases and other material that originated from print. As a matter of custom or policy, the contents of these documents are typically unchanged when posted on the Web.

Secondary documents are created specifically for the site. They should include owner identification, dates of creation and updates, subject and keyword meta tags, and links to points of contact.

Customers appreciate Web pages with clear attribution, expert points of contact and mail links. Providing separate mail links for both technical and subject matter experts can help eliminate lots of telephone tag.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at


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