Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

A worrying trend in government non-communication

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There seems to be a worrying trend for government departments to stop accepting contact by email. Earlier this year, the Department for Education wrote to WhatDoTheyKnow to try to stop them sending FoI requests by email. More recently, I’ve been engaged in a struggle with the Department of Health to try to find a way of contacting them that doesn’t involve their (badly designed) web form. The DoH, like the DfE, seems to want to push it to extremes – not only refusing to accept emails from the public, they’re also planning to force MPs to use the web form to contact them in future.

Although there’s no legal requirement for government departments to publish an email address on their websites (unlike ecommerce sites, which are required to do so by law), it’s still good practice to include that information. While a web form is a useful addition to a published email address, it isn’t a replacement. And the trend by government departments to stop publishing email addresses seems to go against all the principles of open government.

The argument, made by the DoH and others, that publishing an email address leads to too much spam is simply false. In my day job, I work for an ecommerce company which, unlike some (such as Royal Mail), does abide by the law and thus displays an email address for customers to use. Yes, we get spam. But no, it isn’t too much. We deal with it. We have filtering in place which gets rid of most of it, and the rest we just have to put up with. Yes, we’d like to get less of it. But cutting off an important route for our customers to get in touch isn’t the way to do that.

Unfortunately, it seems that obeying the law, and being user-friendly, is only obligatory these days for small and medium sized companies. Large ones, such as Royal Mail, can get away with breaking the law with impunity. And government departments, to whom this particular law doesn’t apply, can simply be unhelpful if they want.

If you think that’s a bad thing, then please take a moment to badger your MP about it. It may be trivial in the overall scheme of things, but government departments need to know that, ultimately, they work for us.