Downing St reopens its email function

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Rejoice, bloggers! Downing Street has started the rollout of its (apparently?) much-missed function to send an email to the Prime Minister.

There’s been plenty of commentary on the function’s disappearance last summer, from Tim Ireland to Francis Maude, much of it coming from the slightly naive position of ‘how hard can it be to set up an email account’? Of course, that part’s dead easy. But what do you do when that account receives hundreds or thousands of messages daily?

I’ve spoken to the Downing Street team about this in the past; the problems with the old ‘just an inbox’ system went beyond sheer volumes. And unfortunately, the classic corporate response – ignore the lot of them (and yes, it does happen) – isn’t an option when there’s the considerable risk of missing something tremendously sensitive: an email, let’s say, from a soldier’s widow.

It’s based on a web-to-email form rather than a plain email address: no shame in that, it’s what Obama does. However, unlike most (including Obama, by the way), it’s done over https, giving an extra layer of security for those messages whilst in transit.

Before you get to that form, though, you’re shown a list of subjects you might be emailing about: and if one of these is relevant, it directs you to somewhere more suitable. Isn’t this obstructive? Yes, of course it is. But it stops you before you waste your time typing a message which won’t get the reply you want. That’s got to be a good thing overall.

Once over that hurdle, the email form is perhaps surprisingly short: all it asks, in terms of personal information, is a name, postcode and email address. Enough for you to get a reply (if they choose to send one), and enough for them to see if any subjects are particularly hot in certain areas. The message is limited to 1000 characters: too tight for Dizzy, but at least there’s a live character count on the screen.

Before your message is properly submitted, you get an automated email asking you to verify your address. Again, perfectly normal online behaviour, with benefits to both sides: it filters out the anonymous rants, and double-checks the recipient’s address in the event of No10 wanting to reply.

Then, behind the scenes, I hear there are a few tools to help them cope better with the volumes: the ability to group emails by common subjects, workflow management, and so on.

A lot of the commentary, it must be said, has been purely a hook on which to hang wider criticism: ‘a beleaguered prime minister retreating to his bunker,’ to quote Francis Maude. It didn’t take any account of whether the former function was actually working. For anyone.

The new system – built outside WordPress, incidentally – provides added security, greater efficiency and reliability, But most importantly, it provides a much better likelihood of your email actually getting a decent response. Which is the whole point of having such a service in the first place.