by Richard Steel

Councils debate bounced emails versus spam

Oct 19, 20083 mins
IT Strategy

I spent Thursday catching-up with correspondence and all day Friday in Newham at an Employment Appeal Panel.

The latest copy of Local Government IT in Use magazine included Helen Olsen’s article, “Get it Right First Time”, which followed a survey of Councils who do not send “bounce” messages in response to misaddressed e-mails. This was prompted when Helen was frustrated when e-mails to my PA went unanswered because she got the address slightly wrong.

“This made us here at LGITU start wondering if this was ‘normal’ operations for a local authority email system. And if so, what effect could that have on citizen service – most pertinently, in relation to National Indicator 14, ‘reducing avoidable contact’.”

Helen therefore surveyed all Local Authorities, sending slightly misaddressed e-mails, to see how they responded. Sixty-four, like Newham’s, were not responded to. Newham has now changed its policy and sends bounce messages when misaddressed e-mails cannot be delivered, but the reason that it, and other Councils, previously did not is that nearly all such e-mails received are spam with randomly generated addresses. Responding to these e-mails validates the addresses and lets the Spammers know that they’ve found valid targets.

The exercise convinced Newham that it should change its policy – organising for the benefit of its customers, rather than for administrative convenience, but that got me thinking about other ways in which we can make life difficult for customers. Among my pet hates are the frequent failures, in our industry, to organise services for access online rather than by “traditional” means. Magazines, such as “Local Government IT in Use”, typify this when they are produced as A4 landscape editions with print columns that mean you have to scroll up and down the page to read them. I, and I’m sure many others, generally print them to read – but that’s something we should clearly be avoiding in the names of efficiency and greenness. I asked Helen about this, and part of the answer was that people say it’s not something they want. (I do, please.) Part of the answer was to do with the extra cost that would be involved.

And there’s the rub; very often service providers are faced with decisions about convenience versus cost – in local government terms, higher Council Taxes or better services? Newham analysed the e-mails it received in one week. The results are below. (I don’t know what happened to Friday and Saturday. Presumably, the analysis was done on working days for the previous days.)

The first column in the table contains the total numbers of e-mail received. The second column contains those that are not immediately identified as Spam. The third is those that have invalid addresses, and the final column is the estimated number of those, following manual examination, that have invalid addresses, but are not deliberate spam.

Newham is just implementing the latest version of Microsoft Exchange Server that has additional functionality to improve the detection of spam, including “probing” spam, but prior to that the manual effort involved in dealing with incorrectly addressed e-mails was reckoned at one full time equivalent per day. So, does the extra cost merit the added customer convenience? I’m still not totally convinced – I can request a “read receipt” if I want to know that my e-mail has got through, but there’s nothing I can do about magazine articles that I find inconvenient to read online!

Incidentally, Socitm also publishes material online in traditional formats. We have the same considerations of cost and customer requirements as Helen. I’d be interested in your views!