You've got mail, Minister

An overhaul of Parliament's communications paper chase in line with the Cabinet's new vision for e-government is unlikely to be completed overnight.

An overhaul of Parliament's communications paper chase in line with the Cabinet's new vision for e-government is unlikely to be completed overnight.

In the area of official responses from ministers alone, there are a variety of practices in use. Members of the public who email Justice minister Phil Goff, for example, receive an acknowledgement from his ministerial clerk Sarah Henry saying "it is not standard practice for Ministers to respond to concerns via email and if you wish to send us your physical address your concerns will be answered."

Although ministers' and MPs Parliamentary email addresses are now freely available - in contrast to the situation three years ago where they were almost a state secret - no ministers have time to directly handle their own official correspondence. Some ministerial offices deliver a canned response which is followed by an email reply, others, like Goff's, will only reply by snail-mail.

Goff's spokesman, Luke McMahon, says the minister's office is "obviously very happy to accept letters by email whether they're standard communications or official information requests or whatever. But all those communications have to be sent through to the Ministry of Justice for them to draft responses, because we don't have the resources in the office to do it.

"In order for them to be sent over to the Ministry of Justice, drafted and returned here for the Minister's approval signature, having it in paper form is simply an easier way for us to deal with it.

"It's also really helpful for us to have a physical address, to have some idea of who we're actually communicating with. Obviously email can be a relatively anonymous means of communication at times. People can spoof email addresses or whatever, and given that letters of response are all eventually signed out by the minister himself, we think it's better for him to be communicating with an individual whose identity is relatively certain.

"The minister also has to read through every letter that goes out under his name. A lot of that approval and looking over correspondence is done on the aeroplane or in the House during quiet moments or a variety of other places that don't involve him sitting in front of his PC. It's also relatively easier to make changes by pen on paper than it is to a draft email.

"I can't see that anybody communicating with us is particularly inconvenienced by providing a physical address to reply to. If somebody sends us an email and wants a relatively informal reply, from a staff member such as myself, I'd be more than happy to reply by email.

"But the paper response from the minister would appear to be with us for some time," says McMahon.

State Services minister Trevor Mallard said this week in announcing the e-government drive that no government agency would be exempt. His press secretary Moerangi Vercoe is promising further comment from the minister: "I don't think he's going to get into specifics as far as other ministers' offices go, but it's certainly part of his strategy."

All Parliamentary staff and MPs' email addresses are administered by Parliamentary Services and take the form firstname.surname@parliament.govt.nz. Ministers also have ministerial addresses which are administered by Ministerial Services and take the form pgoff@ministers.govt.nz.

MPs are also likely to have email addresses related to their respective parties, their electorate offices and possibly their private accounts. Problems in migrating ministers in the new government over to ministerial addresses are understood to have been behind difficulties in emailing some ministers this year.

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