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Digital Mail Program Program to Expand

More legislative correspondents will put aside their letter openers this fall when the House digital mail program expands to its largest audience to date.

The House Administration Committee is preparing to launch the second phase of its digital mail pilot program in about three months, with plans to include up to 50 personal and two committee offices on a volunteer basis.

The program will build on a 90-day trial that began in November 2002. A dozen House offices voluntarily participated in the trial.

“That’s one of the harder phases,” Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) said of the first pilot program, which he called successful. “It did teach us some lessons.”

The digital mail program is intended to decrease security risks as well as delays in mail delivery to the Hill. Since letters tainted with anthrax spores were sent to Hill offices in October 2001, mail has been sent to Bridgeport, N.J., for irradiation to eliminate potential biological agents.

The second phase is primarily a test of whether the system will work for a large number of offices, said a House aide familiar with the project.

“It will probably give us an idea, do we really go forward with this?” Ney said.

New options will also be added to the mail program to allow staff to better sort and organize correspondence.

Unlike the initial program — in which staff viewed scanned mail on CD-ROM after it had been processed by DDD, a Northern Virginia company that has done classified scanning for the government — the new version will store mail on a centralized server, which could be accessed from on and off the Capitol campus. The new storage system will also allow Hill offices to share information with district staff.

Other features will include enhanced “meta” data, fields such as first and last names and addresses, for easier sorting. The program could also allow staff to search for keywords in documents and to find letters on specific topics, such as the death penalty or abortion.

For now, the pilot program focuses only on first-class mail, and participating offices will continue to receive bulk mailings. Offices can request the original version of any item, which is sent to the office in a sealed package.

The program should also reduce delays caused by the irradiation process. Mail currently faces delays of up to a week, Ney said, but the digitization process would add only 24 hours to mail delivery times.

Mail addressed to offices participating in the first pilot program still underwent the irradiation process because it could not practically be separated from other mail marked with the 20515 ZIP code, which designates the House office buildings.

If the program was offered to all House offices, mail sent to the Hill would be redirected to a private firm once it reaches the District, rather than being processed by the U.S. Postal Service.

The program’s second stage will cost about $1.2 million, Ney said. If it is successful, a third phase would be opened to all interested House offices on a volunteer basis.

Ney, who acknowledges there are difficulties in training all offices to use a digital program, said it is unlikely all 435 Members would participate.

“It’ll never be everybody,” he said.

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