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?


Matt

I have to agree with mfw13, the White House will ignore any news, information, etc. that have an adverse effect on their political motives/actions.

However, I don't think it has to do with the way the President receives his information. President has an army of aides and staffers that are tasked with keeping him and his advisers apprised to the latest and greatest information possible. I'm sure that the majority of them carry blackberries and the like. The amount of information that the President has to process on a daily basis is unfathomable, I really doubt that using email will help anyone process the information any faster, regardless of their political motives.

Mark W

Wow - I guess people will take any opportunity they can to bash the president.

Too bad this isn't a question of Bush's policies, but rather a question of whether the President of the United States should use e-mail - no matter who currently fills the office.

I agree with previous posters that said the opportunity cost of the President's time is way too high to be sorting through hundreds of emails. Plus, I would worry that any classified or sensitive material would be leaked (intentionally or not).

tim

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.

Allogene

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.

JL

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).

Mark Allen

That is like asking if the President should use the telephone or writing letters. Of course he should! Heck, he should be Twittering and keeping a MySpace page if it helps keep him more informed and connected to the nation that he is supposed to be running.

J

"whose credibility suffered a hit this week as the U.S. intelligence community published its opinion"

Why is the output of the "intelligence community" suddenly some sort of indisputable gospel?

Speedmaster

Perhaps briefly, but I would imagine the opportunity cost of his time is outrageous.

frankenduf

I'm with Shan- this post is nonsense- the fact that a nuclear weapons program has shut down is good news to anyone with a brain cell

Gene Shiau

Speaking of the MUM effect, the consequence of going against it is better exemplified by my dad's persecution by the Taiwanese government (http://www.taiwanheadlines.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=96573&CtNode=5). He recently wrote a book on the teaching of intelligence gathering and analysis, using class material that he developed and hadn't been classified. Last month he was arrested and charged with leaking state secrets. But the local media speculated that his arrest stemmed from his criticism of the administration at the agency he retired from two years ago.

So how do you weigh the cost of delivering unfavorable messages?

Shan

You know that something is wrong when the statement "Iran is not developing nuclear weapons" classifies as "bad news."

Gene Shiau

Can you imagine the millions of email that would flood the inbox of "president@whitehouse.gov"? When you think about it, the President probably has an email address, but it will have to be checked by hundreds of secretarial staff and summarized for the President every morning. Thousands of cyber attacks will also target the President's email server everyday -- if not every hour -- if people realize that the President checks and replies to his own email.

RM

The President has a host of employees and volunteers who deal with his incoming snail mail. Imagine how many people it would take to go through and filter email to the President.

Dave

As with most executives (at large companies and in other countries, I would imagine) just about everything that goes across their desk or computer screen is filtered by someone in the orginization on its route there. I am sure that the "MUM effect" is played out there. The job of the president then becomes one of limiting the the level of filtering being done, or at the very least choosing the right people to to make those decisions of what should or should not be passed on to the President -- Something our current President has repeatedly demonstrated a poor track record of doing...

Alex

Can you imagine the President checking up with an old college buddy via email? It would be on TheSmokingGun in under 2 minutes! Email is totally insecure.

mfw13

I don't think that this has anything to do with how the President receives information. This has to do with the fact that we have an executive branch in which politics is more important than policy, and in which any information that hinders the accomplishment of political goals will be willfully ignored.

Eli

Were this president remotely interested in the news, i.e. curious and/or informed, I would agree that he should consider using e-mail, or heavens forbid a blackberry.

The problem lies in how easily one can imagine this president reacting to bad news in a childish manner, to some degree covering his ears and yelling "La La La La, I can't hear you". Case in point, his reaction to the new NIE on Iran.

GoingLikeSixty

The president should NOT use email, RSS, Twitter or anything of the like.

However, and this is a little off topic, the president (and every lawmaker) should at least have the knowledge that they exist and see them in action.

Every lawmaker will tell you the last book they have read. I think they need to reinvest some of this book reading time into sitting with a staffer for an hour a week and have demonstrated what's gone mainstream.

BAC

This really doesn't have anything to do with the office of the President, but more of the culture of elected officials. Many, many elected officials, from local government on up through Congress don't have email (or if they have an email account they don't check it personally). Most elected officials rely on staff to filter information for them, enhancing the MUM effect.

squeaky weal

Of course the president should use e-mail, with the same awareness of it's liabilities and limitations expected of any high-level administrator. How do we allow the social and political conditioning required to establish a viable candidate exempt individuals from the ability to communicate that we expect of any white collar worker or high school student?