The Feds Consider Email A Commodity – and They’re Incorrect

Julie Anderson by Julie Anderson, Civitas Group
Thursday, November 17, 2011

Imagine that it is the afternoon of April 13, and you need to get a hard copy of your tax return to the IRS before the filing deadline.  Would you feel at ease stuffing your paperwork in a standard Number 10 envelope, slapping a first class stamp on it, and throwing it in the nearest post office box?  If you're like me, the idea seems risky at best.  You would probably buy a large padded envelope to keep your documents flat and secure in transit.  You might send it via overnight shipping to ensure early arrival.  You might even request delivery confirmation and keep a copy of the receipt for your personal records.  This simple example illustrates a larger point: not all "snail mail" needs are the same. 

In a similar fashion, not all e-mail needs are the same.  For example, a teenager e-mailing a web link to his/her friends has different expectations than a government analyst e-mailing sensitive work products to his/her boss, even though both are using a common underlying service.  In spite of these differing characteristics, e-mail is consistently treated as a commodity among Federal policymakers in Washington.  With more and more government agencies looking to move e-mail services to the cloud with Email-as-a-Service (EaaS) solutions, this mindset must change to properly meet government demands.

If we take a look at the traditional "snail mail" market, we can see that even these basic services have not been commoditized.  The United States Postal Service (USPS), United Parcel Service, and Federal Express, for example, compete intensively in this space, developing new offerings and services to cater to specific user needs.  At the most basic level, they each take envelopes and parcels from one location and deliver them to another.  But they also  have differing options that vary in price depending on where the mail is going (e.g., domestic v. international); how fast it needs to get there (e.g., same day, overnight, two days); how many pieces are being distributed (e.g., bulk and commercial mailings); and what extra services are required (e.g., insurance, special handling).  Given the range of offerings, customers can choose the services that best match the sensitivity and urgency of their situation. 

The approach to using e-mail should be the same.  It is a complex tool that facilitates communication, collaboration, and productivity for anything ranging from personal use to business operations to national security activities.  Sometimes, users may require only simplistic functionality with minimum levels of security and privacy assurance.  In other scenarios, users may require sophisticated functionality along with the highest levels of assurance. 

Differentiating aspects of e-mail services can include enhanced collaboration features, integration into social media platforms, secure routing and encryption mechanisms, role-based access control features, and policy enforcement measures related to the delivery and redaction of classified information.  Capitalizing on the apparent migration toward cheap, commoditized consumer e-mail services and associated variations in e-mail security measures, the USPS has recently initiated a new ad campaign stressing the security and reliability advantages of paper mail over e-mail.

Given e-mail's importance in enhancing communications, collaboration, and productivity, it is vital for a government buyer to ensure the following three things when they are evaluating various e-mail solutions - whether cloud-based or otherwise:

  • The features and functions of the e-mail service can meet their unique
    needs;
  • The level of assurance associated with the communications medium is
    commensurate with the organization's mission; and
  • Any solution integrates with existing business processes and
    systems. 

As government customers continue down the path of procuring EaaS solutions, they need to thoroughly consider their requirements, the available commercial services, and the associated trade-offs between price and functionality.  To date, 15 out of 25 Federal agencies have identified e-mail or e-mail-related services as one of their first three applications to be migrated to the cloud, eyeing the potential for significant cost savings through bulk purchasing.  However, as with any procurement, it is each government buyer's prerogative to select the best value EaaS solution based on the unique combination of productivity, collaboration, and security features required by the specific organization. 

The commoditization of e-mail drastically underestimates and undervalues the dynamic nature of the technology and as more and more government agencies strive to move to cloud-based solutions, they will need robust, sophisticated EaaS solutions to meet their complex needs.  A one-size-fits-all e-mail solution is not sustainable and, simply stated, will not work.

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