NASA bungles e-mail policy

Directive wrongly implied that employees should not answer public inquiries

A recent memo from a NASA public affairs official that appears to instruct agency employees to stop answering e-mail messages from the general public has generated widespread confusion, partly because it states that the new policy is a Bush administration e-government initiative.

NASA and federal officials said the notice was misleading and NASA should have clarified it to indicate that government employees should forward misdirected e-mail messages to the correct NASA e-mail account for rerouting. Employees can still answer inquiries within their areas of expertise, NASA spokesman Brian Dunbar said.

The Aug. 29 memo, sent via e-mail, states: "Here is how the E-Gov Initiative works. Effective immediately, if you receive an e-mail from a member of the public, promptly forward it to the designated e-mail address for your center," and it included a Web site. That lists e-mail addresses of public inquiry officers (PIOs) at NASA's research centers.

NASA has designated PIOs to manage e-mail messages, faxes and phone calls from the general public in hopes of enhancing the public's perception of the agency, the memo states.

NASA officials said they will not issue a clarification because it does not seem necessary. So far only one employee has contacted public affairs directly about the memo. "We'll be happy to talk to any others," Dunbar said.

NASA researchers say they will contest the policy if it hampers employees' ability to converse with the public.

"Given that they haven't said off the record or on the record that they are going to clarify this, leaving it unclear will and already has had a chilling effect on employees' interactions with the public," said Chris Knight, vice president of negotiations at Ames Federal Employees Union and a Computational Sciences Division employee. Workers have been asking union leaders many questions about the memo, Knight said.

Imagine the "guy next to you on a plane, saying, 'What do you think of the Columbia disaster?' and having to answer, 'Here's the public affairs office's number,' " he said. "It's just bizarre that they are being this paranoid."

NASA officials said the original e-mail's wording gave the wrong impression. "Unfortunately, we should have explicitly said that, by all means, people should continue to answer e-mails within their areas of expertise, but we did not," Dunbar said. "It was never anyone's intention to muzzle anybody or restrict information from going out to the public."

PIOs will only respond to messages that employees feel uncomfortable answering, such as e-mail campaigns sent to multiple NASA employees, Dunbar said. "If you've got an atmospheric scientist who has got kids asking about how you can become an astronaut, that's not his area of expertise," he said.

The NASA official who drafted the memo said it was intended to clarify policy.

"The PIO thing has been around for about five years," said Teresa Grimes, public communications management officer at NASA headquarters. "We were just letting people know that we have PIOs set up for inquiries outside of their expertise. ... It's status quo. Nothing changed."

The only change, she added, is that employees should now forward e-mail messages that have no relevance to NASA to a new address, notnasa@nasa.gov, which the General Services Administration's USA Services handles. GSA will then redirect those messages to the proper federal agencies.

NASA could lift the veil

Some e-government proponents say the NASA policy directing responses for public inquiries — minus the disputed e-mail instruction — has the potential to lift the veil that masks many government activities.

Government officials wrongly assume that the public understands the maze of federal departments, bureaus and offices, said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"It is definitely a good thing to get mail directed to the wrong agency to the right place," Schwartz said. "That has been a big failing of the feds." Among his favorite examples of issues that could cause e-mail to be sent to inappropriate recipients: "Ask someone outside of [Washington, D.C.] the difference between a national forest and a national park, and ask them who they'd call to get info on a forest," he said.

But Schwartz does not understand how having NASA employees forward all public questions to a central source fits the purpose of federal e-government efforts.

"For many inquiries, it just seems like another level of red tape ... which e-gov is supposed to be removing," he said.

— Aliya Sternstein

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