An Outside Perspective on Government Email Etiquette

Friday, February 24, 2017

by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I got an email from a friend who is a "non-gov person who wants to remain anonymous" last week (exchange below, blogged with permission). Read until the end, if you are interested in following up, I'd be happy to connect you.

The only thing I would underscore from the comments below, is that we have yet to unlock the business intelligence locked away in our email traffic. Sure we have hierarchical organizations but a robust analysis of email traffic would likely yield a more accurate map of how information and tasks move through the system than or org charts ever would. That and our email culture / etiquette is generally horrible.

[ANON]

Subject: two observations from emailing with people in the GOC

You guys cc way too much. You receive an email and it’s like, “Who are all these people and why are they here??” Executives are impossible to pin down for meetings, and then sometimes don’t even attend despite everyone organizing around them. I have a lot of trouble believing they are that busy and their time so precious, as in, I’ve asked lawyers and execs in the private sector, who say that that kind of unavailability is just not a thing they would see. One day when I have time I seriously want to study the inefficiencies of government email and meeting scheduling.

Sorry – just needed to rant to a kindred spirit.

[CHARNEY]

Can I blog this anonymously or otherwise?

[ANON]

For sure. You can just say it was a non-gov person who wants to remain anonymous.

You can use content from the email if you want, as well.

It is actually shocking to observe the different email habits of government, which seem to have developed a life of their own, and are likely taken for granted as the norm now in the public service. But, as an outsider entering this bizarre world, it’s confusing and time consuming and seems wholly inefficient. I can only imagine the number of inboxes that are needlessly filled with excessive cc’ing. What do people do with these emails? What is the power dynamic and/or disorganization that leads to people thinking it’s a good idea to include people on an email as a default?

[CHARNEY]

Most ppl keep them as CYA / history if needed.

I delete them.

In my previous team we cut email by 3/4 and had a standing practice of if you needed something urgently call. Since changing teams it’s been tough to deal with the deluge.

Did you want to add anything to the content, i.e. make it a real post or would you rather me just comment in over top of it and use it as a quotation?

[ANON]

Feel free to quote me and add in your own analysis. The only thing I would add (which I’d like you to quote) is that we need to better study this empirically, to understand patterns of email traffic across the GC, to identify differences across teams (and the reasons why that’s the case – better management, less complex issues, more independent work, different demographics?), and to compare with other large bureaucratic orgs (I.e. Is this a public sector problem, or a large org problem?). I’d also like to run experiments where phone calls and IM are subbed for email and meetings, to test for efficiency gains. If anyone is interested in giving me access to the email traffic data that would let me conduct these studies, then I would be happy to be outed publicly, and maybe they can contact me via you.