Editorial: Looking beyond e-mail

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The House earlier this month passed a bill that would require the preservation of federal agency electronic messages, including those at the White House.

The bill’s primary purpose is to curtail the flurry of missing White House e-mails. The New York Times said, breathlessly, on its editorial page July 13: “After watching wholesale lots of the Bush administration’s most important e-mails go mysteriously missing, Congress is trying to legislate against any further damage to history. The secrecy-obsessed White House is, of course, threatening a veto — one more effort to deny Americans their rightful access to the truth about how their leaders govern or misgovern.”

Unfortunately, the White House is not alone in the cavalier way it treats e-mail — and all electronic documents. One of the worst kept secrets in government is that electronic documents have been ignored. Many agencies still do not save e-mail records. Out of necessity, most agencies rely on users to determine whether an e-mail or electronic document meets the definition of a government record that needs to be saved, and then many agencies merely print those documents and put the hard copies into their existing record-keeping systems.

This process has been portrayed to be more complex than it needs to be. Most agencies are intimidated by the problem because of the sheer number of electronic documents they create every day. There are solutions available, and we understand the Air Force is being innovative in this arena, using commercial products to automate the entire process. For most agencies, though, it simply isn’t a priority.

In part, that is because there is no good link between all this data and agency missions. That change could and it can make archiving and storage an essential part of how an agency gets its job done.

There is also the difficult task of finding an adequate way of storing those electronic documents in a format that can be maintained for generations. That vexing task has been dogging the National Archives and Records Administration for years.

It is sometimes said that soldiers will fight the last war rather then looking at coming battles. That can be true for the electronic record archiving debate, too. While issues about e-documents linger, there are fresh challenges ahead.

As agencies come to use more Web 2.0 tools in their daily operations, it seems an increasingly futile quest to determine at what point an electronic document becomes a record that needs to be preserved. We hope and believe that the inherent transparency of these tools will also provide historians with the discussions around issues because those discussions will take place in the open.

This is not a quixotic battle. If done right, it should help agencies tap into the wealth of information they already have to accomplish their missions more effectively.

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