Buzz of the Week

Disappearing records

This much became clear last week: Key players in Congress and the White House understand that e-mail correspondence is an important part of the public record.

  Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, gets it.

As part of an investigation into the controversial firings of several U.S. attorneys, the committee sent letters to agency leaders asking them to preserve all e-mail messages from or to White House officials that were sent using nongovernmental e-mail systems.

Waxman apparently thinks White House officials get it, too.

 Based on e-mail messages discovered in the White House system, the congressman suspects some officials, looking to avoid public scrutiny, may have discussed the firing decisions while they were using e-mail accounts set up by the Republican National Committee. Waxman’s point is simple: Even if government business is conducted outside government systems, it must be preserved as part of the public record.

chart In the daily workings of government, the archival importance of e-mail is sometimes overlooked. E-mail exchanges often occur so casually that they do not seem on par with memos and other official correspondence that agencies preserve as a matter of habit. However, slowly but surely, the message is getting through, with most agencies taking at least some steps to preserve e-mail along with other digital content. Top-level officials often take a different approach. Rather than tangle with such issues, they don’t use e-mail.

That appears to be the case with the man at the center of the current controversy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. According to a report on National Public Radio, Gonzales is just one of several Cabinet officials who have taken that route. President Bush told CNBC last year he steered clear of it because of potential political ramifications.

Sure, a phone call can take a fraction of the time needed for an e-mail exchange, but only if both parties are available to talk. With e-mail, a conversation can occur over hours or days at the convenience of its participants. Better yet, the technology provides a handy record of that conversation, which will be accessible days, months or even years later.

That is exactly what Waxman is counting on.

The Buzz contenders

#2: Sprint wins for sportsmanship
Sprint Nextel didn’t win a place on the General Services Administration’s multibillion-dollar Networx Universal telecommunications contract. But it won for sportsmanship when it decided not to protest the award. From almost anywhere you stood, you could hear the collective sigh of relief.

Sprint has enjoyed a long run as a telecom provider for the government, beginning in 1988 under the FTS 2000 contract. Ten years later, it was an FTS 2001 winner. And this past December, Sprint won a bridge contract, worth about $679 million, so it can continue to offer telecom services for as long as it takes federal agencies to switch to the telecom and network services providers that won Networx Universal.

#3: The IG and me
Steve Kelman, a Harvard professor who writes a column for Federal Computer Week and blogs on FCW.com, said he thinks agency inspectors general are too quick to criticize. That’s their job, you say. But Kelman said he thinks that some overzealous IGs are killing the innovators who are willing to risk making a few mistakes in pursuit of better government.

Kelman’s blog postings on the topic have elicited comments from some who say their IG is great and others who say theirs is bad. Edward Wyse commented that military IGs generally avoid the pitfalls that Kelman deplores because they take a realistic approach to problem solving. Wyse made the point that inspection methodology is not as rigid as audit methodology, allowing inspectors to apply common sense in their approach and recommendations.

At the opposite extreme is a comment on Kelman’s blog by someone who wrote, “Our IG is so out of control that he has the entire organization paralyzed.” It’s signed GSA Cave Dweller.

#4: Tax fraud detection is back
We won’t see a repeat of the government’s $318 million payout of improper refunds because of fraudulent tax returns this year. The Internal Revenue Service got its groove back, but more importantly it got its electronic fraud-detection system working again. Last tax season, the agency prematurely powered down its fraud-detection system in anticipation of launching a Web-based version with new and improved electronic fraud-detection capabilities. But a funny thing happened. Computer Sciences Corp. was unable to deliver the new system on time and all parties involved found they couldn’t restore the old system in time for last year’s peak tax season. The IRS’ Electronic Fraud Detection System screens all returns requesting a refund to identify improper refund claims and stop them from being issued.

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