At Monday’s Parliamentary briefing, ostensibly about whether the forthcoming election would be the UK’s first digital one, the distinguished MPs and Lords and Ladies who attended did what they do best and took hold of the conversation, repeatedly sidetracking it. They needed answers not about social media, but about a truly Web 1.0 phenomenon: how should they cope with the influx of emails that they get from their constituents? As digital experts, we’re expected to offer solutions to the firehose of email traffic (bearing in mind, of course, that we also receive a preposterous number of wants, needs, demands, desires from a truly random bunch of people who have the ability to type and press ‘send’). So how do we cope? In the interests of crowdsourcing a solution for the government employees of the United Kingdom, I reached out to the Twitterverse for a solution.

Now, remember that it’s easier for us layfolk: the Getting Things Done bible sworn by in geek circles recommends setting aside a certain time of day and setting up automated filters in order to establish a system, so that your world isn’t dominated by responding to other people.

Standard GTD actions; reply/schedule reply, delegate or delete. Many tools available, I use Clearcontext and it rocks! (scottkeegan)

Email filters. Make all twittermail go to junk except for those containing a keyword given to your actual friends (pita_gyro)

Lots of filters to automatically colour code with labels in gmail, and to auto-archive mailing list stuff so inbox is just to-dos (bethgranter)

Emails that come to me moved into Action, Followup or Holding folders.I work from those.All else deleted or archived.Works for me.:) (simoncarl)

Others recommend a “Ctl+A Del” system to get to inbox zero:

Anything that’s older than a month and doesn’t have a flag – delete. I’m not the best tho – my Hotmail inbox has 563 messages =( (harrisonmike)

But really, can we actually ever get to inbox zero?

Inbox Zero is a myth, the best I can hope for is moving completed emails to a new folder, archiving them just in case (biglesp)

Oh, you’re hurting me. And, of course, while the delete method is fine for us, we aren’t elected officials. They are, by the nature of their positions as our representatives, required to respond in a useful and timely way to each and every message.

How did they cope with postal mail when all communications came in that way? (mattcochr)

Well, it’s easier to send an email, innit? The simplicity of sending an electronic letter means that they are overloaded.

what’s so bad with an autoresponder confirming receipt of the email and manually going through them? (kevsgreat)

Seriously. Think about it. You might get annoyed if your email to a colleague or company comes back with an autoresponder and then goes unanswered but you somehow understand, because they’re paddling the rising email waters in the same e-boat as you.

anything unread after a wk gets mrkd as read & moved 2 archive; colleagues know they they can’t assume I read eml, use phone instd (ottocrat)

On the other hand, you do not have the same relationship with, or indeed the same things you need from your local counsellor or your MP. These public figures are hired by us to get things done from the bottom rung of the political ladder all the way to the top. This means they get a profound amount of email about everything from fixing a pothole and solving the local pesky kid problem to getting us out of unnecessary conflict zones. How on earth should they prioritise?

dealing with email: the 5 min rule… If you can sort it / respond in 5 mins, do it… If not schedule time for it later (pkkelly)

Later means putting it off. They still have to respond to each one. And phoning takes time. Besides, each email details our Very Important Problem using Very Important Points, all of which need to be addressed, and all of which use up way too much head-RAM.

Derek Wyatt MP uses an iPhone app to be able to converse with constituents ‘between meals’ (saulcozens)

Derek is dedicated to e-communication, but he also does not sleep.

We recommended another solution, using Web 2.0 (we were trying to corral the conversation back to the point, mind): what about responding in aggregate, according to the categories that emails come in. But the assembled assured us that they can’t write a blog post like the rest of us would because every person who sends an email wants a personalised response. In fact, they pay for it.

So, in short, they’re stuffed.

As far as I can tell from your suggestions and their conundrum, the best solution appears be twofold. First, filter like mad:

they need to setup email rules early and often. Everything should have a folder – even potholes! (bookwhack)

setting up filters to deal with certain watch words is a good start / having a proper priority system in place for responding (_lemon)

Second, delegate according to category:

They should read them or at least parse them for keywords; or have someone do that for them just as someone may check their post etc (philkane)

A little set-up cost means a world of pain is averted. I’m going to take this advice now and get my filtering on. Bring on inbox zero.