Sunday column: On controlling premature email

Pose a verbal question these days to a state government “public information officer” or “communications director” — those are titles for folks designated to deal with media inquiries — and it’s highly likely he or she will decline to immediately answer and instead request the question be sent by email.

This allows the flack — that’s short for flack-catcher and the title long applied informally to PIOs, CDs and the like by media folk who pose questions — to show the email to his or her boss and receive instructions, often after consultation with others within the bureaucracy, on how to respond appropriately.

Occasionally, the responses can startlingly candid and informative. Far more often, they are startlingly evasive and non-committal, especially if the matter involves something controversial. It all depends on what the public should know, as decided by the boss bureaucrats and politicians involved and almost always with the goal of promoting themselves or their objectives.

The email question approach makes this process far more efficient than in the old days of actual time-consuming conversations, either face to face or on the phone. That applies to us media types who find it easier just to send an email, then do other stuff while awaiting a response that can be quickly cut and pasted into what the public reads, as well as the governmental communications bureaucracy interested in controlling what the public sees, hears and reads.

Lately though, the state government gang has discovered there’s a downside to information control when it comes to dealing with the media and email, thanks to Tennessee’s open records law and reporters who did not go through designated PIOs/flacks.

Out of control, they actually saw and disclosed to the public emails that were not appropriately screened to assure promotion of institutional objectives. (WTVF-TV of Nashville put a whole pile of emails on outsourcing on its website.)

And they decided to do something about it — namely instructing bureaucrats and the hired consultants they work with to stop emailing each other and, presumably, have more private discussions to assure that things are not “prematurely” disclosed.

“We want to provide you all and the public with as much information as we can, but we have to have some opportunity to make sure in fact that what we’re providing is the right information,” Terry Cowles, who heads Gov. Bill Haslam’s office of Customer-Focused Government (CFG), explained to reporters. CFG includes Strategies for Efficiency in Real Estate Management (SEREM), which, according to prematurely disclosed emails, has the objective of privatizing most everything involving property owned by state government. Those emails included a timeline for public disclosure in February and having the contract signed by next Aug. 1.

Not so, the officials insist in a matured and properly planned response to the unapproved reporting. They are merely exploring the idea of privatization with the best interest of taxpayers at heart — in closed-door “steering committee” sessions.

When they have reached their conclusions and prepared a press release and the statement to be read at a news conference, they will let us all know in transparent fashion. And the Legislature, enlightened privately by the governor’s legislative liaisons and a public slide show of properly prepared talking points, can decide the matter under appropriate circumstances.

As things stand now, a couple of unauthorized conversations suggest that there’s a high probability the privatization proposal will be watered down significantly because of premature public awareness. No surprise there. One of prematurely disclosed emails voiced concern about a “potential pushback from the public and media,” and the need to prepare for the flack. Premature disclosure meant a lack of preparation for such things, hampering sales of the proposal to customer taxpayers.

A customer-focused business understands the need to control the flow of information, certainly not permitting disclosure of internal emails while a marketing/advertising campaign is developed. A customer-focused government, one supposes, might do the same — another step toward running government like a business.