Ignore e-records at own risk

The rule of thumb in official Washington is never say or do anything you

would not want to have show up in The Washington Post. Add to that: Never

don't do something that will land you in The Washington Post.

The case in point — and an object lesson for the executive branch — is the

series of recent stories about the failure of the White House to find and

examine e-mail correspondence that might have been relevant to congressional

subpoenas. One story is about computer programming glitches that led to

the failure to keep an archive of thousands of e-mails sent to some 500

White House employees. The other, more troubling, story is that a computer

serving the office of the vice president failed to keep proper e-mail records

for some top officials, including Vice President Al Gore, from 1994 onward.

"That's terrible," you say. But there must be backup tapes. Yes, there

are: five-plus years' worth of backup tapes — 4,025 tapes from the offices

of the president and the vice president alone. It is remarkable that they

are intact. How many agency heads can say the same with assurance?

Even if the tapes are intact in agencies, they are certainly made, as

in the case of the White House, as protection in case of catastrophic computer

failures. Because backup tapes do not constitute a recordkeeping system,

with characteristics such as an organized structure and the capability for

searching, the White House estimates that it will take almost six months

and $3 million to reconstruct the e-mail messages. How many agencies could

afford to do that?

What this very public case makes clear is that electronic recordkeeping,

at the very least for e-mail, is in a less than ideal state at the White

House. Anecdotal evidence suggests that similar requests to agencies for

e-mail or for electronically created and stored documents would meet similar

problems. In the case of e-mail, most agencies would either have to reconstruct

backup tapes or search every relevant desktop computer and hope that messages

were still there. In either case, finding the relevant materials would be

time consuming and, therefore, expensive.

In the case of electronically created and stored records, it is not

likely that backup tapes would exist. So unless your agency is being vigilant

about printing out and filing paper copies of all electronic records, disaster — and litigation — threaten.

Most agency heads put records management somewhere near the bottom of

their priority list. It is not high visibility, and it doesn't generate

any rewards from the National Partnership for Reinventing Government. In

fact, no one in the Clinton administration seems to care much whether it

happens or not. Maybe now they will. Or at least maybe now agency heads

will see the proverbial handwriting on the wall and realize that they must

begin to address this complex issue, or they too can look forward to facing

litigation, an angry Congress and a probe by the Justice Department. It

is only a matter of time.

— McDermott is an information policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government

watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

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