Sign up for state agency e-mail alerts from, say, the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts or the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and they'll let you know when meetings are being held and when proposed rules are ready for review. But click a link in those e-mails and they have the ability to see who looked at which rule or which web page and who didn't look at all.
"Five years ago, that would have been unheard of. Unheard of," says Scott Burns, co-founder and CEO of GovDelivery, which provides the e-mail service — and the tracking — for government agencies. "It would have been, 'No way.' It's a profound difference. Government has decided that using social media is okay, using Facebook is okay and doing link-tracking is okay."
Transparency is the sexy beast of government right now — politicians and agency executives are stumbling all over themselves to make their work, their budgets, their data available to the public. As it turns out, it works both ways. For anyone running a website, it's technologically trivial to see who's looking and even to find the internet addresses of the computers doing the looking. But agencies that communicate with the public via e-mail can also see who's opening their messages, what links they're clicking on, even — in a roundabout way — whether they're forwarding the e-mails for others to see.
GovDelivery is used by a number of cities, state and federal agencies, including some in Texas. Several state agencies use it to e-mail the public, press and practitioners with business before them; the list includes the Commission on Environmental Quality, the Comptroller of Public Accounts, the Department of Transportation, Economic Development, the Employee Retirement System, the governor's office, Health and Human Services, and Parks and Wildlife. Cities like Hurst, Plano and Sugar Land use it. And a mess of federal agencies use it, including the FBI, Centers for Disease Control and the departments of Homeland Security and Agriculture.
Burns says the company started offering tracking — well after it was available and in use in the private sector — about three years ago. It's an option for the agencies that use the company's bulk e-mailing services. "That's up to the agency, what they do with the data or whether they even look at it," Burns says. "The system allows them, if they choose, to track information at the same level you would track in any e-mail communication system on the market, which could be, you know, 'Did somebody click this link from this e-mail address?'
In the example pictured, what the user sees on the screen is a link to the "Consumer Confidence Index" for March. But clicking on that link actually goes through a tracking system that tells the Texas comptroller of public accounts something about who's using what. In this case, the direct link would be:
The actual link for someone who clicks on the e-mail, however, is quite different, though it lands the user in the same place:
The part of that address that looks like the cat danced on your keyboard includes information like the e-mail address it went to and a link to a "blank graphic" that lets trackers know the message has been opened (the graphic loads, and in doing so flags the trackers), and it identifies the link being clicked. The comptroller gets a report from GovDelivery that tells it how many e-mails were sent out, how many bounced back from e-mail addresses gone bad, how many that were delivered were opened by the users, and how many users clicked on each link in the article.
If they wanted to see it, the agency could also find out whether someone using a particular e-mail address clicked on a particular link.
"It's the kind of tracking you do to understand if your messaging is being effective and used — not to do any sort of data-mining on who it's forwarded to or whatever," Burns says. "We can't track that, and our clients can't track that."
Texas agencies — those that know they can pin down individual e-mails — say they don't do so.
"We have never gone to see [who] opened that e-mail. Very few people have access to that information," says Beth Hallmark, creative director in public outreach and strategy at the comptroller's office. "I don't think we would ever have a need to do that."
That agency spends $2,500 each month for the service for unlimited e-mails, easily covering the cost for a similar barrage of postcards sent by regular mail. The value of the service, Hallmark said, is that the agency can track how many people are actually getting their message — they care little about exactly who they are.
The Texas Department of Transportation also uses the service, says department spokesman Chris Lippincott. "Like the comptroller's office and other places, we make a lot of rules … and ask people for feedback. That's sort of what we use it for." His agency doesn't track anything but the top-level statistics about how many people open e-mails and what links are most used.
"We don't track any information," says Katherine Cesinger, a spokeswoman for the governor's office.
Likewise, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality uses the service for press releases and notices on rules and other news. "We don't trace those e-mails," says Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the agency.
There are some critical differences between this service, which is only for the public sector, and similar services made for the private sector. The e-mails are only sent to people who asked to receive them, generally by going to the website of the agency in question and signing up for alerts of one kind or another. They're never sold, shared or cross-indexed with other email lists, the company says. So someone looking, say, for a good list of tax accountants with business before the state comptroller can't go to this system looking for a list of e-mail addresses. It's not available to them. And for the most part, company officials say, the agencies aren't tracking individual responses to their e-mails. Instead, they're interested in bigger numbers: how many emails got opened, what links were most frequently used, things like that.
But the public sector and private sector systems have similar tracking tricks. Some users are interested mainly in how many people are reading their e-mails and in which links in those messages are of most interest to their audience. Some don't trace actions back to particular users (and it's not necessarily useful information to them).
"The onus is still on the government not to misuse the information," Burns says. "They have legal obligations not to misuse information that they receive. But they also have fiscal obligations to track whether things are working. I think it's a tricky balance. We provide the option for them to make the decision. We don't make the decisions. … If they ever have concerns, they can turn it off with the flip of a switch."