WHO, WHAT, WHY?
The Magazine answers...
Tony Blair e-mailed 1,791,942 people about his transport policy. How much more expensive would it have been to write to them?
One down. Only 1,791,941 to go
One of the reasons the government launched its petitions website was, apparently, to easily engage with people who joined online protests.
When people brought their paper petitions to Downing Street in the traditional way, responding to each person by letter was a costly and often impossible business.
The road-charging petition is not the first to prompt an e-mailed response - dozens of others have too - but it has provided this new spirit of e-democracy with its biggest test.
By e-mail: £6,000
By post: £427,378.17p*
*excludes cost of letters and envelopes
So how much did it cost to press "reply all" and how much cheaper was it than sending letters?
The cost of sending 1.8 million e-mails is about £6,000, estimates Chris Lake, editor of E-consultancy.com which advises people on internet strategy.
"Last week I had lunch with someone who sends out 180,000 a week as a newsletter, which cost him £600," he says. "That would make it £6,000, but it could be much less or much more. Plus there are the resources to craft it and put it together."
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There are lots of variables so we can't be sure, he says. Costs vary according to internet service supplier and may be wrapped up in an annual deal rather than a one-off cost. It also depends on the size of the e-mail.
The e-mail by Tony Blair was 1,273 words with no pictures, weighing in at a relatively light 24kb.
"It's cheaper to send e-mails now than it was five years ago," says Mr Lake. "The market has had a lot of new suppliers - arguably it has too many suppliers - and that has forced a downward pressure on prices.
"Suppliers instead make their money through consultancies and helping with content."
Although sending e-mails is free for most domestic use, the platforms used by people at home have a limit on the number allowed, so a special e-mail provider would be required for a task of this size. To get round this, spammers have their own hardware or hack into other servers.
A spokesman for mySociety, the non-aligned organisation which created the petitions website after being approached by Downing Street, said the cost of sending the e-mails had not been calculated but the exercise as a whole cost £25,000 plus VAT.
Mr Blair's emails were sent from multiple servers to ease the time waiting for an answer from the receiving mail servers and lessen the impact if any server crashed.
Other technical considerations included:
• making sure not to be accidentally blacklisted by internet service providers
• coping with the e-mails that bounced back, the number of which has yet to be worked out, and
• making sure those who opted out of the mailing did not receive an e-mail
'This could take a while, sir'
How much would it have cost to do it the old-fashioned way, by letter?
Sending 1,791,942 letters to arrive the next day would have cost £537,582.60 in postage alone, before estimating the cost of the paper, envelopes and processing.
But the Royal Mail offers bulk discounts and says if 90% of the mail was accurately postcoded then it could be done for £427,378.17p, down to £411,250.69p if all the mail was barcoded to speed up the sorting.
Some people have questioned what Downing Street is allowed to do with all these e-mail addresses of people who feel strongly about any given issue.
The answer is send them up to two e-mails, according to the terms and conditions published on the website: "We will only use the information you provide us for this purpose, and, unless you ask us not to, to write to you a maximum of two times about the issues raised in the petition."
Thanks for your comments on this story. The debate is now closed.
You people can't help but whine can you? If he hadn't replied you'd have whined, if he'd have posted on the website you'd have whined, if he sent out letters you'd have whined. Get a grip on yourselves, the population of this country drive me mad with your incessant whining about everything, try and think positive about something the government has tried to do just once in your lives.
Lee Thackray, Leeds
I must be the lucky one, the PM sent mine twice, if that's happened to me how many other received there's twice so the cost could be more than £6000 ?
Nigel Humphrey, Littlehampton
I have not received an email yet despite signing the petition (not even in Junk). The claim to reply to them all was just a publicity stunt. Even if Tony Blair had been serious, he clearly would not have read the 1.5 million replies which makes the exercise pointless.
Matt Langley, Crawley, UK
I got my email from the PM after signing the petition and I don't understand why people complain about it really. Thanks Tony!
Nicolas Hatton, London
Tony should have done it the old fashioned way, make a public speech.
At the end of the day, he didn't write that email and he didn't even press send.
CS Zeng, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
So there now exists an e-mail list of 1.8 million motorists who are also politically minded individuals. I bet the Labour Party can't believe its luck! I look forward to the cheap mail shot around election time from the Prime Ministers office, giving me an update on the progress of the Road Charging investigation along with 5 paragraphs also telling me what a great job the Labour Party has done in a whole range of unrelated activities.
Dave, Shropshire, England
I run an internet marketing company with servers in Canada, USA, and Thailand. To send an opt-in email campaign such as this would cost £175 but you would still get 30 - 40% bounce back. The reason many people have not received their emails is because the free email providers (who account for about half of all UK email addresses) have decided that anything from somebody who is not in your address book is automatically SPAM, and delete it without even consulting you - even if you have opted in! I would recommend everybody get a proper email address from a reputable ISP, imagine how many emails you are missing!
Tim Jones, Thailand (ex Plymouth)
Where's my email, i didn't get one either!!!!! Perhaps they are hiding the real numbers? may be more than they are telling us?
Dave Garner, Bedford
Dave, Hello- Is anyone home? Personal users are limited to the number of e-mails you can send in one go and then there is a time delay. Free e-mails for personal use are subsidised by big business, how long exactly would it take you to type 1.8m names from your PC with a time delay per 100? Have fun.
6000 pounds for sending that many emails is a gross exaggeration; even factoring the time needed to write an email-sending script and run it, the cost should not top around 100 pounds. Selecting who to email and who not to email is also trivial; just keep the data in a database, and run a correctly-structured query against it, possibly on the same box you run the sender script on. Granted, you need a load-balanced farm of email servers, but you'd expect the government to have one of those already; ditto a means of coping with a lot of bounce messages since they are highly likely to be mailbombed on a regular basis already, and should have the infrastructure in place to cope with such foolery already.
Dr Dan H., Manchester, UK
I don't understand why so many people use a method like this to seek a dialogue with the PM and then automatically assume the response is junk. Do you expect him to take you seriously in future?
Dave Elton, Cheltenham, UK
Great to see he emailed everyone.
Jack, Nottingham, UK
If you are a member of a reputable emailing company you can send that many emails for approximately £200.
The government should be applauded for saving the taxpayers millions and pioneering a new way to involve the people in government. The Internet is tailor made for this kind of mass opinion spouting.
Philip Knight, London
I signed a petition on another subject and got an interesting reply detailing government policy and explaining the thinking behind it.
I didn't quite agree with it all, but I thought the system worked well and the e petition idea is a good one.
Why didn't the PM just put his reply on the website where everyone could have read it, this would have cost nothing, but a few minutes of someone's time to type and upload. Most people will just delete it anyway.
Caron Pittam, Irvine Ayrshire
How many trees would you have to slaughter to produce 1.8 million letters, envelopes and stamps?
A Corn, A field near London
Saying that this is an example of the government reducing expenditure is like rationalising the purchase of a pair of designer boots in a sale - they may have been marked down from £550 to £199, but you haven't saved £350 by buying them. Were it not for the site then the petition would never have collected so many signatures in the first place. Still, it's heartening to see so many people willing to participate in the democratic process if all they have to do is click a mouse; Emmeline Pankhurst must be turning in her grave.
Graeme Mulvaney, Coventry, England
Having spent a day wondering why I hadn't had my email response, and happened to check my junk mail box, and there is it was, in the right place all the time!
Liz Parkinson, Stockport UK
Glad to see Mr Blair is making some effort to cut back on expenses, after all we've had to put up with the cost of the Millennium Dome, the new Wembley and the general bureaucracy of his administration has run up at taxpayers' expense. Hopefully SPAM filters will take care of his e-mails!
Ged "Gedders" Lavelle, Aigburth, Liverpool
I received 2 letters from the Prime Minister last year in response to the Make Poverty History campaign card that I sent. So too did all the other people I know who had completed these campaign cards. At the time I thought it was a complete waste of money, and I personally would have preferred the money to be used in the spirit of the campaign rather than to write to me. Reading this report just reinforces my opinion. I don't know how many people responded to the Make Poverty History campaign, but I can imagine it was more than the 1.7 million who singed this petition about road pricing, meaning £1 million or more was spent sending 2 letters to each of these people. Surly this money could have been better spent? How about putting it towards making poverty history?
On the bright side, this is the first evidence of the government reducing expenditure in a positive manner for a while!
M Fletcher, Plymouth
I'm sure one reason why the government is replying to those who signed the petition is to see how many of the email addresses used are actually valid. It will be interesting to find out how many of the 1.8m emails sent bounce back.
Paul Abraham, Accra, Ghana (ex UK)
Chris Lake estimates sending 1.8 million emails as costing £6,000. How does he work that out? If I had the time I could send 1.8 million emails from home and it wouldn't cost me any more that I'm currently paying which is £10 per month.
Dave Haward, Ipswich, Suffolk
Where's my email then? I signed the petition and have so far received sweet FA from our PM!
Very nice of him to reply, but mine went straight into my Junk folder and was deleted before I got a chance to read it!
Carolyn, London, UK
I signed the petition and as yet have not received an email form the prime minister. Is it lost in the cyber post?
Emma Paice, Norwich