Use anthrax scare as spur to GPEA compliance

Shawn P. McCarthy

Who'd have thought it would take a fear of anthrax in the U.S. mail to make citizens turn to e-mail communications with government offices?

E-mail provides an easily searchable record of transactions. It doesn't arrive with deadly anthrax spores or things that explode'though it might contain computer viruses and worms. And it saves days of postal travel.

Most government offices are working hard to accommodate e-mail as well as letters, phone calls and faxes. Your agency probably already does a fair amount of daily business online, and by 2003 the Government Paperwork Elimination Act will require you to go paperless. How to hurry things along? Here are some suggestions:

  • Start a focused campaign to steer citizens, businesses and organizations toward online interaction with envelope inserts, handouts at your office and a media campaign. List your electronic contact points and describe the benefits of choosing them.

  • If you collect payments, consider offering a small discount to those who pay online.

  • Once you've started a promotional effort to move more agency business online, monitor the results. What percentage of your customers reacted? Why or why not? Go back and find out more about people or organizations that have never done business with you via the Internet. Do they have computers? Do they have your online contact information? Do they need help? Think about funding a position for someone to walk them through the process.

  • People like to see the human faces that make up a bureaucracy. List an e-mail address or even post a photo for any employee who deals with the public. If people know who to contact online about specific issues, they're more likely to do it that way.

  • Offer guarantees to people who conduct business online. What's the average turnaround time for your transactions? Are things faster online? If so, guarantee a response in a certain number of days.

  • Speaking of guarantees, you must deliver safe messages with attachments that are always virus-free. Make sure your own virus-checking software is up to date. If you want citizens to trust your online transactions, you have to be trustworthy.

  • Make sure people understand what your office can and can't do via e-mail and online forms. Publish frequently asked questions in print and online, explaining your processes.

  • Respect citizens' privacy in your e-mail interactions. People deserve to know what you will and won't do with information they provide. Take a look at an opinion survey about online privacy topics at Citizens generally want a level of anonymity for some things.

    Does your office serve a population that lacks computers or Internet access? If so, keep an eye on S 488 introduced by Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). The bill proposes tax credits of up to $2,000 for purchase of home computers or associated equipment. You can read the bill at

    Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at
  • About the Author

    Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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