Snail mail allowed for second thoughts

2nd November 2001 at 00:00
Jo Moore has become notorious because of her tasteless email suggesting that September 11 might have been a good day to bury a little bad news on councillors' expenses. But would we have heard about her at all, had she not committed her immediate thoughts to an email?

Sir Humphrey would no longer recognise today's Whitehall, where email is king. Schools are succumbing too. But it is a mixed blessing. It enables speedier communications, but does it necessarily make for better decisions?

When I was a special adviser (even occasional spin-doctor, if you must) in the Department for Education, I received fewer than 300 internal emails only on quiet days. Many emails had multiple attachments, regularly extending to three or four 30-page documents. Responding to them was but a small part of the day's work, so had to be done quickly - which meant being to the point.

When Kim Howells was first appointed a minister in 1997, and put in charge of ICT policy at the Department for Education and Employment, he requested an Internet point in his office. Not an unreasonable demand from the minister charged with networking 24,000 schools. Yet it took him six months to get even a stand-alone link, so paranoid was the government machine then about breaches of security.

Now, most Department for Education and Skills civil servants are not only linked to the Internet and an internal Intranet they also regularly hold video-conferences with colleagues in far-away Sheffield and Runcorn. The staff canteen at the department's Sanctuary Buildings headquarters has become an Internet cafe.

Many schools are changing just as quickly. The Internet is enabling virtual exchanges with pupils in other countries. The more imaginative technology colleges are changing the shape of the classroom as pupils work increasingly online.

But aren't there some dangers? When the splendid Yes, Minister series was broadcast in the early Eighties, the fax machine, let alone the email, was barely used. Procrastination was often the order of the day, as memos were sent around departments with varying speed and importance. And while emails still ostensibly have similar rankings in Whitehall, the temptation is for instant reply.

That can harden attitudes, rather than improve understanding. But is there an alternative? While I doubt that I could have got through nearly as much material in a day without the email, I suspect a lot of the material I received might never have been circulated without new technology either.

Civil servants do spend too much time in pointless meetings But, from time to time, a short sharp meeting can improve understanding of an issue and resolve arguments.

Might not the same apply in schools? Of course, some heads like to send memos to their staff anyway. A curt, unfriendly memo is no more demoralising when sent on an email. But the temptation will grow for conversations to take place online (and misunderstandings to multiply) where a quick chat might defuse the situation.

Receiving so many emails each day encouraged me to respond bluntly at times when diplomacy might sometimes have worked better. A printed minute or a memo is drafted, considered and corrected. The danger with the email (as Jo Moore knows to her cost) is that an unworthy thought can often be transmitted before one's own wiser counsel has time to take over.

The bad old days of dither and delay have disappeared in Whitehall. And that must be a good thing. Procrastination is indeed the thief of time. But there must also be a place for careful consideration, reasoned response and having second thoughts. As Whitehall responds to a 24-hour media age, embracing new technology in the process, there is a danger that these virtues are disappearing as surely as the less obvious benefits of the old civil service.

With virtually every school connected to the Internet, there will be huge possibilities to enhance learning. Yet, it will be equally important that reasoned discussion and conversation are not replaced by cyber-chat.

But then I have sent this article to The TES via email.

Conor Ryan was special adviser to David Blunkett at the DFEE, 1997-2001

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