Senate Follows E-Business To Deal With E-Mail Overload

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Sept. 26 2000 9:00 PM

Senate Follows E-Business To Deal With E-Mail Overload

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Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000. 

Members of Congress, particularly Republicans, love to talk about making government behave more like new economy businesses: quick, lean, and dedicated at all costs to maintaining good "relationships" with consumers.

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Now the U.S. Senate is prepared to take a serious step in that direction by deploying new software already being utilized by several big corporations, including J.C. Penney and Calvin Klein, that are struggling to keep pace with a rising flood of incoming e-mail. (Call it the "G-to-C" or "government-to-consumer" space.)

Of course, the advent of this new software, developed by the Cambridge, Mass., firm Echomail, probably means senators won't actually read any constituent e-mail anymore.

In fact, a draft press release written by IBM (which recently inked a deal to provide powerful servers to Echomail) states that the new software will "reduce the need to manually read" the thousands of messages flowing into each Senate office every day.

But no matter, according to Echomail and the Senate—the voice of the people will still be heard. In fact, they say, it will be heard and acted upon faster and more accurately than ever before.

In addition to deftly sorting and automatically generating responses to constituent queries, the hype goes, Echomail will also provide senators with free and accurate polling data on any given issue.

Say Sen. X is torn over how to vote on eliminating the estate tax. The senator could fly home and hold some town hall meetings. Or rally the staff for an all-night letter and e-mail reading session.

But why bother? With Echomail, the senator would simply need to read a few e-mails and come up with the catchphrases either side generally uses in its arguments. "Death tax," for instance, would likely appear in correspondence from those who abhor the idea of the government snatching hard-earned dollars from the dearly departed. Other phrases such as "wealthiest Americans" or "landed aristocracy" might show up in messages from opponents of repealing the tax.

Once the words are compiled, Echomail will ostensibly use them to rifle through each incoming message and generate a report on how many support and how many oppose an issue, and even how strongly each side feels about its position.

Armed with that information, Sen. X can head to the floor and vote based on constituents' wishes.

This insta-polling function is actually a side benefit—or curse, depending on your point of view—of what the Senate was really looking for: a tool to weed out incoming junk mail and to keep constituent correspondence separate from internal messages.

As the level of e-mail from constituents has increased dramatically, so has its ability to cripple the Senate's e-mail system. During the Monica Lewinsky imbroglio, for instance, e-mail traffic shot up 2,500 percent and created serious havoc. So the Senate went trolling for software that could pile up tons of messages, identify and delete junk mail, and deliver the rest to the right offices in a categorized format without affecting the free flow of internal e-mail.

Echomail was one of the few companies that could deliver all that and, because it designs software for e-business, also happened to have the market research tools that translate into free polling for senators.

So far there are only two Senate offices using the new software—the clerk's office would not reveal which ones—but by November it should be available to every senator. How they actually utilize it remains in question. Each office will have the option of simply using it to handle incoming mail or to generate appropriate responses or, for the ambitious, to instantly take the pulse of their states without ever having to read an individual message.

Ben White writes about online politics for the Washington Post. He can be reached by e-mail at whiteben@washpost.com. This article is reprinted from the washingtonpost.com's "OnPolitics."

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