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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?