Three weeks ago, the staff at Liverpool city council, all 19,500 of them, were informed of a new workplace rule: every Wednesday, all internal email communication would be banned. They would not be allowed to set up meetings, forward documents or arrange assignation in the pub by sending an email to their colleagues. Instead, they would have to relearn forgotten skills and pick up the phone, or walk to each other's desks, for a conversation.

"It all started because our email traffic had doubled in six months," says David Henshaw, the chief executive of the city council, "and there seemed to be some evidence that people were feeling oppressed by technology. Email was becoming the new filing; people sending mails to say, 'I've passed this on to you.' "So Henshaw decided "to have a little fun with it". The 100,000 emails handled each day by the council's server have plummeted by 70% mid-week. Henshaw says his own Wednesday traffic has dropped from 250 to 25.

It has been a few years since the demise of email was first predicted, as workers began to gripe about the increasing silly volume of messages they were expected to read and process each day. Many employees now spend two or more hours a day dealing with their mail, a third of which, according to a survey last year is junk email. But the medium appears to be in rude health, proliferating merrily, to the exasperation of those who do actually like to get some work done each day.

So could Liverpool have the solution? The council insists the initiative was not primarily about easing the workload of its staff; the intention was to make the place more efficient for "customers". "We don't want people using email and thinking, 'If I copy in about 10 people then I've moved the action - it's no longer my responsibility,' " says Pauline Owens, the council's e-government manager. "Plus, people get into the habit of logging on straight away, and anything that comes through on email is dealt with first. That isn't what business is about."

E-government, she explains, is about "e-enabling services" - making as many of the council's functions as possible accessible via the internet. Doesn't that rather contradict the aim of reducing email traffic? Apparently not, since emails from customers are still allowed on Wednesdays; staff simply have to deal with requests directly rather than leave them to fester in a inbox or pass them on to someone else.

Liverpool now sells its services to other authorities, and it has been awarded "beacon council" status, meaning that it is a national leader in providing certain services. The business process has been "re-engineered". It's about the organisation internally," gushes Owens, "about making ourselves think better and work smarter."

Esther Addley, adapted from The Guardian, August 15th, 2002

Foot note : Liverpool city council : le conseil municipal de Liverpool

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