Just as the business of electronic government is coming into its own, President Bush may have unintentionally set it back about eight years.
Before taking office, Bush had touted e-mail as a means to keep in touch with — and solicit advice from — his father, the other President Bush, and brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. After his inauguration, however, the new president decided to bypass e-mail in favor of a good, old-fashioned phone call. "Now that presidential e-mail is subject to open records, it's going to be a phone-call relationship," Bush told reporters.
Perhaps Bush has reason to choose voice over data.
One need only recall the problems e-mail messages caused Vice President Al Gore during congressional inquiries into his campaign finance activities. And, more recently, Bush knows that his brother had to give the media daily copies of his missives, thanks to Florida's open records law.
But is that reason enough for the "e-mailer in chief" to take himself off the Internet? What message does that send to the thousands of federal employees who rely on e-mail to keep them connected to colleagues, not to mention the public?
Getting e-gov to go back to paper and phones might be easier than you think. In response to an article in FCW's Jan. 22 issue, Gary Bell, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wrote a letter detailing his agency's decision not to buy electronic whiteboards. The agency's legal staff warned that notes written on electronic whiteboards — which can be stored and shared — were subject to release under the Freedom of Information Act. Bell wrote that every staff meeting potentially could come under public scrutiny. "Obviously, this would be a scary scenario for any government agency and prevent the open exchange of ideas needed to come to good decisions."
Bush's choice to shun e-mail will only serve to send a chill through federal agencies. The message "Don't create records; the public's watching" is inappropriate. Better for Bush and all federal em-ployees to stand behind their public documents, electronic or otherwise. The issue is accountability, and that only comes through public scrutiny.