Two weeks ago the South-east of England was hit by the heaviest snow in 18 years. This caused widespread disruption with buses and trains canceled, and the closure of airports and schools. Many local government offices were closed and employees were advised to work from home if possible.
One local council closed their head office on Monday 2nd February as it was considered too dangerous for employees to travel. The next day – Tuesday 3rd February – an email was sent to all council staff – over 6,000 people. This email gave details about which council buildings were open, along with the operational status of particular council services. It was sent by the council “Media manager”.
A few minutes later, a council employee replied to all with more information regarding the status of the council residential homes. Thus an email chain was started that would highlight many of the dysfunctional aspects of email as a communications medium for large groups of people.
The next day – Wednesday 4th February – there was another reply-to-all from an employee giving details of the council’s fire stations. Forty minutes later the same employee sent another reply-to-all email with further information on the status of fire stations.
Reply-to-all count: 4
This was followed by a reply-to-all email criticizing the initial email. The council employee wanted to outline that just because council offices were not open, that didn’t mean employees were not working. Rather, he suggested the council’s Media manager had tried to ‘spin’ a story in his initial email, which was not representative of the ‘mess’ caused by the closure of council offices.
This was followed up with an email 3 minutes later thanking all employees for struggling to their posts in challenging working conditions.
Reply-to-all count: 6
The next reply-to-all email was sent 15 minutes later, and concerned the council’s lack of grit/salt for a hospital car park. It was critical of the council’s inaction in this area, and noted that the Army had to be called out for the visitors car park.
Five minutes later an email was sent asking people to please ‘not copy everyone into these replies’. Five minutes after this, an email was again sent to everyone agreeing with the criticism in relation to the hospital car park.
Reply-to-all count: 9 (Includes 1 email requesting a stop to reply-all).
Three minutes later an irate employee sent another email asking people to stop emailing everyone with ‘anecdotes on parking and snow etc’. This was followed up twelve minutes later with an email suggesting that everyone stop using the reply-to-all button, and instead suggesting the Intranet discussion pages be used to continue the discussion. Two minutes later another email was sent again asking people to stop sending emails, and especially not as reply to all. This was followed up three minutes later with another email with the line: ‘Please stop replying to everyone!‘.
Reply-to-all count: 13 (Includes 4 emails requesting a stop to reply-all).
Five minutes later another email arrives highlighting: ‘We have have [sic] had more emails saying stop sending emails than about snow/parking!’. A response to this arrived one minute later identifying the irony of the previous email. Another email five minutes later attempted to add some humor into the conversation with: ‘This is snow balling out of control’. This was responded five minutes later with a one word email: ‘Brilliant’.
Reply-to-all count: 17 (Includes 4 emails requesting a stop to reply-all).
I assumed this was the end of the email chain, but it started up again 8 days later. The next email sent outlined how loads of time was wasted sending emails about a bit of snow. This appeared to rejuvenate the conversation, however, with another email arriving nine minutes later. In capital letters the council employee displayed her frustration with the previous email. This included: ‘NOBODY REPLY TO THIS. LET THIS EMAIL BE THE LAST OF IT. IT IS ALL RIDICULOUS AND NOBODY CARES!‘.
This appeared to be a challenge, and a response arrived one minute later. It again attempted to inject some humor with the line: ‘Snow man is an island’. The response to this arrived three minutes later and simply included: ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOO’. This was not the final email, however, and another arrived eight minutes later. This included a joke: ‘What happened when the snowgirl fell out with the snowboy? She gave him the cold shoulder! sorry what i ment to say was stop replying…’
Reply-to-all count: 22 (Includes 6 emails requesting a stop to reply-all). Estimated emails sent in this chain: circa 132,000
The problem with email
Email is a useful and efficient tool in which to communicate with small groups of people. It is not an effective tool for discussion or debate within large groups. Indeed, one company recently removed the reply-to-all button from their email program, in order to ‘reduce non-essential messages in mailboxes’.
The rational was described in an email to employees:
Beginning Thursday, January 29, we will implement one of the approved recommendations: removing the “Reply to All” functionality from Microsoft Outlook.
We have noticed that the “Reply to All” functionality results in unnecessary inbox clutter. Beginning Thursday we will eliminate this function, allowing you to reply only to the sender. Responders who want to copy all can do so by selecting the names or using a distribution list.
Eliminating the “Reply to All” function will:
• Require us to copy only those who need to be involved in an e-mail conversation
• Reduce non-essential messages in mailboxes, freeing up our time as well as server space
Removing the reply-to-all button is not necessarily the solution to email chains. It’s not the technology of how email works that is the issue, but how we should and should not use it. According to Gartner, 30% of e-mail is “occupational spam,” characterized by excessive CC, BCC and Reply-All use.
The email replies described above would be less characterized as spam if the feedback provided was relevant. Instead, however, the replies seemed to turn into a game of cat and mouse. People openly rejected many calls for a stop to reply-to-all. Some countered with jokes, and others with exasperated frustration. Given the wide variety of local government entities and demographics receiving the emails, uncharacteristic responses should have been expected. The reply emails did not engage in a serious discussion of the original email content, rather most of the emails were replies to replies. This scenario is sometimes seen within blog discussions, where comments are often focused on the content of previous replies, rather than on the original blog topic.
Nevertheless, in this case the original email would have been more suited to a blog than an email. This would have allowed employees to subscribe to receive comments if they were interested in continuing the debate. Unfortunately, however, there is no blogging mechanism internally within the council. While there are discussion boards – as outlined by one of the email replies – these are hidden away on the council intranet and are not actively promoted, or encouraged as platforms for active debate. Indeed, the topic discussion created relating to snow had 0 replies.
Improving communication within local government
The recent Power of Information task force report contains 25 recommendations for government. These include suggestions to embrace social networking, blogging and other web 2.0 tools to improve communication, collaboration and participation in government. These tools provide platforms which emphasis pull technology, as opposed to email’s push medium. You can choose what you want to subscribe to, and pull this when required. Ross Mayfield notes that:
Ideally, we would use push mediums for directed private or time-sensitive communication and pull for less formal, more public and less urgent communication…For every group that you regularly communicate with, one of your goals should be to increase communications efficiency and effectiveness. Without these shared goals and practices, behavior will not change. And with new technologies, you have the opportunity to transform communication habits into collaborative best practices.
Many councils are using Web2.0 technologies internally and externally to improve communication and collaboration with employees and the citizens they serve. These include providing internal communities in which employees can easily communicate with large numbers of people. Web 2.0 has the ability to transform local government through creating internal communities, by empowering people to make their voices heard and collaborate efficiently.
One council using wikis and blogs effectively is Barnet. The leaderlistens blog provides an external example of how a blog can be used to communicate with the public. Such a blog could be used internally to provide a platform upon which employees could communicate and engage in debate without resorting to mass emails.
Local councils must acknowledge and accept that while there is not a problem with email itself, there is a behavioral issue with how it is used. Acknowledging and accepting this is the first step towards introducing new platforms which provide more appropriate mechanisms for widespread communication, commentary and debate.