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Why do officials really conduct business on personal e-mail?

E-mail circling the globe

Do officials use personal e-mail to hide unethical behavior? One reader thinks they might. (Stock image)

To our article on the use of personal e-mail accounts, a reader wrote: The big problem for some with using personal accounts is that it is much easier to hide unethical behavior by some of these high level officials. I doubt that the problem with e-mail is that it really "just sucks up time" but actually pins down exact discussions of issues that could be used against those who want to keep things vague and touchy-feely so they can spin things in whatever fashion for political purposes. Just look at most of the people involved in avoiding official e-mail and you can probably figure out why they do not like it.

Adam Mazmanian responds: It's probably difficult to imagine, especially for digital natives, but for a lot of executives in and out of government e-mail might just be a time suck. For a senior executive like Department of Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, who is on the record as a non-user of e-mail, it might just be easier to get information in staff briefings and dictate notes on official memos and documents, rather than try to stay ahead of a busy, ever-changing e-mail in-box.

Lisa Jackson, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said that she created an alias account under the name Richard Windsor as a workaround to the flood of messages she received at her official, published e-mail address. While her motives were a matter of dispute, Jackson said that the Richard Windsor e-mails were archived according to federal rules.

Government records experts I consulted for the original article said that important notes on document drafts and minutes of meetings by agency heads are considered government records, and are supposed to be archived along with visitor logs, phone logs, and other material that gives an accounting of the movements, contacts and activities of high ranking officials. Of course, this process is subject to human error and deliberate omission. An automatically archived e-mail system of the type provided for in the November 2011 presidential memorandum on records management would provide a more complete record, and presumably wouldn't accommodate any less-than-assiduous records management on the part of senior officials.

Posted by Adam Mazmanian on May 14, 2013 at 12:10 PM


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Reader comments

Wed, May 15, 2013 DR NY

I think that it's incredibly naive to think that it is anything other than an avoidance of accountability.

Wed, May 15, 2013 Keith PA

A possible reason for using "personal" e-mail accounts versus the official govt agency e-mail account is the avoidance of strings of e-mail having to be submitted via the FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request process. I can see that many administration leaders and staffers would rather not have to submit their e-mail records to an organization researching potential wrong doing or deliberate information falsification. Personal e-mail accounts most likely fall into that "gray area" of non-official communications when it is likely that a small amount of "official" govt communications are happening outside the various administration's systems to avoid the public eye (individuals, media, or activist organizations). Obviously it would not entail sensitive, classified type of information, but more in the realm of embarrassing comments or unflattering information.

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