Assessing the Appalling Austin Enterprise Email Events

There seems to be an assumption, in the articles about this case, that the officials in question used private email for the express purpose of hiding what they were doing from the public, and avoiding various laws about open records and document retentions.  Having known a few politicians in my day, I certainly wouldn't rule out that possibility, and I understand why it might be one's first guess.  However, our study of what's been going on in business suggests that there could be a less sinister explanation.

Today's news brings the announcement of a legal case that will test whether it is permissible, in Austin, Texas, for government officials to use private email to conduct public business.  None of us at Mimecast are authorities on Texas law, which will (properly) decide the case.  But we know a lot about the purposes, strengths, and weaknesses of enterprise email systems, and we've recently been studying the startlingly widespread use of personal email for company business.  Some of what we've found may be relevant to the Austin case.

In particular, poorly-administered enterprise email systems are notorious for driving away users.  I've found that cash-strapped governments are extremely likely to have their IT staff spread so thin as to make first-class administration almost impossible.  If that's the case in Austin -- and again, I have no familiarity with the specific systems and organizations in the case -- then the users of the system may have been struggling with a host of problems that they know -- from their own experience with systems like gmail and hotmail -- needn't be a part of a modern email system.  They may have been struggling with low storage quotas, frequent downtime, and poor remote access, for example.  That sort of thing used to be an inevitable part of email systems, but the current generation -- "generation gmail" -- knows better.

We're in a transitional era in computing in general, and email in particular.  Applications that used to live on mainframes, and then on local servers or clusters, are migrating to the cloud.  The cloud computing paradigm is frightening to some -- Can I rely on my critical services being available?  Will I lose control of my proprietary data?  But as more companies test the waters, the answers have been resoundingly positive.  In fact, cloud-based applications are by and large more reliable than locally hosted applications, and do a better job of protecting your data, because that's the cloud provider's whole business.  A record of failure in such basic measures of performance would be a cloud company's epitaph.

If the problem is one of corrupt politicians seeking to avoid disclosure of damaging information, it's unlikely that any technology will solve the problem.  Technology rarely, if ever, succeeds in improving human ethics.  But if the politicians were -- like 85% of the youngest workers in our study -- avoiding their enterprise email for the relatively laudable goal of doing their jobs better, then technology can help.  A well-run, state-of-the-art, high-availability enterprise email system might be all they need.  And these days, the first place they should look for such a thing is in the cloud.