Should the President Use E-mail?

Presidents of the United States don’t use e-mail, any more than they carry their own petty cash. But there are hazards in being unwired at the top, and among the greatest of these may be an inability to get bad news when you need it.

Take President Bush, whose credibility suffered a hit this week as the U.S. intelligence community published its opinion that Iran stopped its work on nuclear weapons four years ago, contrary to the administration’s increasingly dire warnings. The revelation kicked off another round of Washington’s favorite question: “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

Bush told reporters that Adm. Mike McConnell let the him know in August that there was new intelligence on Iran, but kept him in the dark on the specifics until last week. Democrats dispute this account as completely implausible.

If Adm. McConnell was a little slow to give Mr. Bush the bad news, part of the explanation could rest with what psychologists call “the MUM effect,” our ingrained reluctance to deliver undesirable messages for fear of negative repercussions. The effect is a major driver of organizational silence, a performance-sapping affliction in which subordinates routinely fail to deliver important bad news to their superiors.

But it turns out that e-mail may be a powerful antidote to the MUM effect, by stripping away the social cues that make delivering bad news unpleasant for the messenger, and leaving the receiver less defensive about the message. That means bad news can be delivered more readily, and with less distortion, than in person. That’s not to say the President would have learned about Iran’s nuclear change of heart via e-mail. But a president who creates a climate in which bad news can flow freely through e-mail might be more receptive to it when it counts.

Setting aside the Bush administration’s notoriously imperfect relationship with the medium, should the 2008 presidential candidates be promising to govern better by bringing e-mail into the Oval Office?

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  1. Allogene says:

    In today’s day and age it seems odd that the Commander-In-Chief does not use email but I could not imagine the large quantity of emails the President would receive on a daily basis. The President has a busy enough day or at least should and the time sifting through emails seems like a waste. Having someone filter emails does not sound like a good idea either because they then become a critical gate keeper of information and the possibility of that person filtering out a critical piece of info is not worth the risk.

    The problem seems more in the culture of the current President’s Oval Office. I would hope the President would be as open to negative news and views just as he is to positive and good news. If the President’s subordinates do not feel they can present bad news than we have a much bigger problem.

    God save the Queen, I mean President.

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  2. Allogene says:

    In today’s day and age it seems odd that the Commander-In-Chief does not use email but I could not imagine the large quantity of emails the President would receive on a daily basis. The President has a busy enough day or at least should and the time sifting through emails seems like a waste. Having someone filter emails does not sound like a good idea either because they then become a critical gate keeper of information and the possibility of that person filtering out a critical piece of info is not worth the risk.

    The problem seems more in the culture of the current President’s Oval Office. I would hope the President would be as open to negative news and views just as he is to positive and good news. If the President’s subordinates do not feel they can present bad news than we have a much bigger problem.

    God save the Queen, I mean President.

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  3. tim says:

    Presidents don’t use e-mail because every letter they type in can be subpoena’d during every witch hunt (valid or not). Just look up Bill Gates very public testimony during the anti-trust hearings for an example of this.

    It has absolutely no relationship to no carrying cash and I am surprised that such a relationship was brought up.

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  4. tim says:

    Presidents don’t use e-mail because every letter they type in can be subpoena’d during every witch hunt (valid or not). Just look up Bill Gates very public testimony during the anti-trust hearings for an example of this.

    It has absolutely no relationship to no carrying cash and I am surprised that such a relationship was brought up.

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  5. JL says:

    As the leader of a nation whose citizens overwhelmingly use e-mail for personal and professional communications, and whose up-and-coming generations sometimes learn to use a computer before they learn to use a pencil, it seems ridiculous that President Bush doesn’t use e-mail. However, the future president who implements its use will have to do so while keeping a watchful eye on privacy issues. (See Michael “Can I quit now” Brown, 2005).

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  6. JL says:

    As the leader of a nation whose citizens overwhelmingly use e-mail for personal and professional communications, and whose up-and-coming generations sometimes learn to use a computer before they learn to use a pencil, it seems ridiculous that President Bush doesn’t use e-mail. However, the future president who implements its use will have to do so while keeping a watchful eye on privacy issues. (See Michael “Can I quit now” Brown, 2005).

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  7. RobertSeattle says:

    RSS would be great for a President. He could subscribe to the various agency RSS feeds, read the summaries, ignore what isn’t a priority, a drill into the things he cares about. Heck, they could set it up anonymously so it couldn’t be traced by the President perhaps…

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  8. RobertSeattle says:

    RSS would be great for a President. He could subscribe to the various agency RSS feeds, read the summaries, ignore what isn’t a priority, a drill into the things he cares about. Heck, they could set it up anonymously so it couldn’t be traced by the President perhaps…

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