Anthrax spurs e-mail surge

"How is Anthrax Changing Congress and How are Offices Using Technology to Cope?"

Official documents, comments on proposed rules, consumer complaints — the stuff the federal bureaucracy thrives on — languish by the ton, sealed in bags waiting to be decontaminated by radiation at a plant in Ohio.

Three weeks after anthrax-spiked mail halted postal delivery in much of Washington, D.C., many federal agencies still were not receiving paper mail. Instead, officials are praising the efficacy of e-mail.

"It's certainly a lot easier for everyone to use electronic filing," said Maureen Peratino, a spokeswoman for the Federal Communications Commission.

Since paper mail service was disrupted Oct. 17, the FCC has asked those who must file documents to "make the fullest use of the commission's electronic filing systems." And electronic filings have gone from about 15 percent to 50 percent, Peratino said.

It has become much harder to file on paper. The FCC no longer accepts documents enclosed in envelopes. Anyone attempting to deliver documents in an envelope — even "confidential" documents — is ordered from the FCC building to dispose of the envelopes in a receptacle outside.

"We prefer electronic filings," Peratino said. Much of the paper that still flows in comes from law firms and is delivered by couriers. Communications lawyers, it seems, are resistant to change. "They want to make sure they have a paper with a stamped receipt," she said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Interior Department are among a growing number of agencies encouraging greater use of electronic documents.

With its mail piling up in a quarantined storage area, the Transportation Department warned on its Web site that it might not receive paper documents mailed by organizations and individuals hoping to influence the agency's rulemaking process.

Even documents that are courier- delivered may not make it through new security measures on time, department officials said. "All package deliveries must be X-rayed and screened by the DOT mail room prior to their acceptance."

But there is one way to ensure documents meet deadlines. "Filers are encouraged to use the Electronic Submission System on the docket's Web page," department officials said in a memo.

Filers have taken heed. In October 2000, 17,157 filings were submitted to DOT on paper, and 2,125 came in electronically. This October, 9,770 were submitted on paper, but 17,550 came in electronically, DOT spokes.man Bill Mosley said. Similar patterns are appearing across numerous regulatory agencies, said Krish Krishnan, chief executive officer of NetCompliance Inc., a company that sells "paperless compliance" systems and services to businesses that must routinely file paperwork with federal agencies.

Since the anthrax attacks, "we're seeing a dramatic increase in inquiries" from businesses. Even when the mail is not being delivered, "there is no holiday from compliance deadlines," Krishnan said.

For example, some companies have just 48 hours to file accident reports to the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. There are at least 51 federal agencies that require periodic reporting and mandatory documentation on some 4,400 rules, he said.

"We think, based on the business we are doing with private-sector clients, that this [anthrax scare] may be a turning point" toward paperless interaction between government and business, Krishnan said.

The paper mail disruption may have hit hardest on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress have felt cut off from their constituents and have urged voters to contact them via e-mail.

An announcement on Rep. George Gekas' (R-Pa.) Web site states, "Please note...Rep. Gekas' D.C. office is open, but mail is still being held at the Capitol complex mail-processing facility until further notice." Paper mail sent to the Capitol office "will not be delivered for quite some time."

Congressional offices reported 200 percent to 400 percent increases in e-mail volume, according to the Congress Online Project. House and Senate members received 80 million e-mail messages in 2000, but may be in line to receive 300 million before the end of this year, the organization projects.

Senate offices are installing a sophisticated e-mail management system that automatically screens e-mail messages and can be set to respond to some of them.

First, the system flags threatening e-mail messages, then automatically filters out spam, duplicates and out-of-state messages.

Usually, that cuts the e-mail volume by about half, said V.A. Shiva, chief executive officer of EchoMail Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., company that developed the system.

The remaining mail is then analyzed by pattern-recognition software, which Shiva said can tell the attitude of the writer — whether it's positive, negative or neutral — sort the mail by subject and route it to the appropriate staffer.

The system can also respond to some e-mails with a prepared message. Constituents who write about stem cell research, for example, might automatically be sent an e-mail message stating the senator's position on the issue. How.ever, more complicated messages typically would be forwarded to a staffer for response.

The system is already in use in 37 Senate offices and will be installed in the rest by the end of January, Shiva said.

Coping with anthrax

After anthrax halted mail delivery to Congress, lawmakers turned to information technology to stay in touch. The Congress Online Project, which advises House and Senate members on IT use, surveyed congressional offices and found:

* At the start of the crisis, only 10 percent of congressional offices answered e-mail with e-mail, although 50 percent have the technical capabilities to do so.

* Research in Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry e-mail devices were often the most reliable form of communication between staffers and their elected bosses.

* Less than 5 percent of congressional offices had the capability to update their Web sites remotely. Thus, many congressional Web sites have remained unchanged for days or weeks.

* Sen. William Frist (R-Tenn.), a medical doctor with Web savvy, become a frequently sought source for information on anthrax. Visits to his Web site soared from 4,000 a week in September to 111,000 a week by the end of October.

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