Sprehe: The president's legacy

The White House has repeatedly tolerated inadequate systems for keeping e-mail records

The White House has been taking it on the chin recently for its lack of an e-mail archiving system — as well it should. We should be clear that, first of all, e-mail archiving is not e-mail records management. Notwithstanding industry hype, e-mail archiving is storing messages with metadata. E-mail records management means assigning messages to a file plan folder and deciding how long to keep messages and how to dispose of them. E-mail records management also refers to the storage of those e-mails.

With few exceptions, federal agencies do a poor job of retaining and managing e-mail that contains important evidence of their business activities and transactions.

However, with the White House, we are talking about presidential records and the Presidential Records Act, a much more serious ballgame than your everyday federal agency.

When the Bush administration switched to Microsoft Exchange in 2002, officials found that the Clinton administration’s records management system was incompatible with Exchange. So they abandoned the system and never put anything decent in its place.

Instead, the White House used the journal function in Exchange to gather e-mails, which a contractor then collected, manually named and stored as Personal Storage Table files on servers. This is not e-mail records management; it’s half-baked and inadequate e-mail archiving.

A new Electronic Communications Records Management System was ready to go in August 2006.

However, the White House chief information officer canned ECRMS and started developing still another system. The CIO decided ECRMS could not properly distinguish between presidential records and nonrecord political e-mail.

History the loser The latest system is unlikely to be completed before January 2009 so e-mail messages for three-quarters of the Bush administration will go unmanaged, and history will be the loser.

We already know that this administration cannot distinguish between presidential records and political nonrecords because of the debacle that resulted from its use of the Republican National Committee’s e-mail system. Millions of administration e-mails are missing because of that.

Throughout this circus of blunders, the National Archives and Records Administration has kept knocking on the White House door, patiently asking about presidential records and offering assistance.
For the most part, no one answered the door or the letters or e-mails. When the White House answered NARA, it was with smiles, promises and little more.

What is most disconcerting from an information technology standpoint is the administration’s bland acceptance year after year of pitifully inadequate information systems for handling presidential e-mail records.

Equally disconcerting is the CIO’s appalling failure to grasp the severity of the situation and the crucial difference between archiving and records management.

The situation seems open to only two interpretations — either systematic, long-running IT management incompetence or a calculated effort to blur the historical record.

No matter your political persuasion, neither interpretation is flattering to the president’s legacy.

Sprehe (jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com) is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington.  

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