After Senate members find themselves adrift in a sea of e-mail, they decide they must set a new systems courseBY PATRICIA DAUKANTAS
| GCN STAFF
Two years ago, as President Clinton's impeachment proceedings took center stage, floods of impassioned messages slowed congressional e-mail systems to a crawl.
Now the Senate is readying separate systems for its public e-mail and its internal business e-mail so that staffs will not lose messaging capability during future controversies.
Routing constituent e-mail through a separate system could avoid future network jams and server crashes, said Lynden Armstrong, administrative and systems director for the Washington office of Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).The deluge
At times during the proceedings, Congress received so much e-mail that Capitol Hill staff could not use their Lotus cc:Mail, said Jody Reeves, systems administrator for the Washington office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
'Right after the whole impeachment e-mail deluge, the Senate began casting about for a new e-mail system to handle the volumes that we're getting from constituents,' Reeves said.
In mid-1999, Senate officials announced they would use EchoMail message routing software from EchoMail Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. Over the past year, Senate and company officials have been working to convert the software 'from a private-industry product to a public-sector product,' Reeves said. For example, a batch-printing function had to be added, Armstrong said.
Feinstein's office is one of two in the Senate that have run EchoMail as a pilot since last January, Reeves said. Between now and April, it will be rolled out to the rest of the Senate.
As a senator from the nation's most populous state, Feinstein receives about 2,500 outside messages per day, reaching 5,000 to 7,000 in the days before a Senate vote on major legislation.
Feinstein's policy is to send personalized responses only to her constituents. E-mail correspondents must include a postal address to get an answer.
Systems tech Lynden Armstrong says senators need separate public and internal mail services.
Reeves said she has set up the senator's EchoMail account to recognize the keyword California and its abbreviations, plus ZIP codes that begin with 9. Out-of-state e-mail messages get an automated EchoMail answer stating Feinstein's response policy.
Most Hill offices have a similar policy for constituent e-mail, Reeves said.
'If a Senate office is small enough that they can handle other people, that's great'I envy them,' she said.
Reeves said her account has filters for common spam and viruses, and she never even sees such messages.
About 70 percent of the e-mail from Californians can be answered by stock replies that explain Feinstein's position on issues, Reeves said.Special requests
E-mails that need special attention'requests for tour tickets, flags or other materials'are printed out and answered by postal mail, Reeves said.
Because Feinstein was up for re-election this year, Senate policies forbade sending out unsolicited e-mail to voters.
Reeves said the California senator's office would not do that anyway. 'People might think of that as spam, and it can get a little annoying,' she said.
Most congressional offices have a constituent management system (CMS) specifically designed to log all letters, phone calls, faxes and e-mail from voters, Armstrong said. Senate offices generally use one of two products: Quorum Power from Intelligent Solutions Inc. of Falls Church, Va., and Capitol Correspond from InterAmerica Technologies Inc. of McLean, Va.
The EchoMail system is not designed to replace the CMS products, which can track constituent concerns in greater detail, Armstrong said. For example, EchoMail could tell a staff member whether a constituent has sent a message every week, but not whether that person has written only about agricultural issues.
In many Senate offices, workers print out constituent e-mail and log them into the CMS by hand, Armstrong said. He does not expect that to change right away, because EchoMail initially will not have an electronic connection to the existing databases.
CMS vendors are developing bridge programs that would transfer messages sorted by EchoMail into the database systems, Armstrong said.
Feinstein's office uses Quorum Power, which holds correspondence records dating back to the start of her Senate service in 1993, Reeves said. EchoMail archives e-mail for six months.
Generally, nothing about senators' e-mail will look different to the public, Armstrong said. Existing public e-mail addresses, such as firstname.lastname@example.org
, will remain the same.Spam? No thanks
To discourage spam, some Senate offices, including Domenici's, collect e-mail from constituents only through a Web form, such as the one at www.senate.gov/~domenici/contactme/contactme.htm"
Once Domenici's staff tries the new system, its members may consider setting up a public e-mail address and filtering responses through EchoMail, Armstrong said.
The number of e-mails to Domenici's office varies widely, depending on whether the Senate is in session and whether senators are debating hot-button issues.
On average, the office gets about 500 outside e-mails per day, up to 70 percent from New Mexico residents, Armstrong said.
Senators get plenty of correspondence from activists outside their home states. The volume of nonconstituent messages 'probably depends on how much national exposure your boss gets,' Armstrong said.
Based on a survey of Senate offices, EchoMail set up about 30 basic e-mail categories for broad issues such as defense, the environment and agriculture. During training on the new system, Senate staff will learn how to personalize EchoMail to reflect specific state concerns.
Individual senators' offices will get the new system by seniority. Domenici entered the Senate in 1973, and his office will probably be an early adopter, Armstrong said.
Senators' offices don't have to take on EchoMail if they don't feel they are ready for it, but Armstrong said he has not heard of anyone rejecting it.Keep it moving
The turnover from this month's elections should not affect the rollout, Armstrong said. The system won't be installed in the offices of retiring or defeated senators, and new senators will get the system close to the start of their six-year terms.
The office of the Senate sergeant at arms hosts the EchoMail system in the Senate's main data center, located in the Postal Square building near Capitol Hill.
The software runs on two Sun Microsystems Enterprise 450 servers, and two additional Enterprise 450 machines host an Oracle8 Release 8.06 database for EchoMail.