Government Email Preservation: A Chat With CREW’s Melanie Sloan
Posted at 2:11 p.m. on July 3, 2014
Controversy over missing Internal Revenue Service emails has been in the headlines recently, but Melanie Sloan and Anne Weismann at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington argue the real problem is a systemic issue with federal agency record-keeping. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, they write that Congress has long known that federal agencies have not been preserving records but hasn’t done anything about it.
Technocrat talked with Sloan, the group’s executive director, and here’s some of what she said:
“I think there are several problems,” she said. “I think agencies are not provided the resources in order to adequately preserve records.”
Staff aren’t trained about preserving records and print and save is “not a particularly effective way because people have to remember to do it,” she said.
It’s not about people being “malicious” but about people “not knowing what to do, not knowing this is important and not having the technological tools to make this easy,” she said.
Record-keeping should be done in the background so employees aren’t thinking about it regularly — you want them to think about their jobs, she said.
On who the preservation requirement and print and save system applies to:
It basically applies to anyone who works in a federal agency, she said. Agency records are supposed to be preserved; its unclear to people what they need to save and what they can’t preserve, she said.
“I think almost everybody thinks that, you know, their email is backed up somewhere,” she said, but they don’t realize that it’s often not backed up.
So, is this print and save system a government-wide requirement or does it apply only to certain agencies?
“There also is not uniformity,” she said. “Different agencies have been handling their record keeping in different ways, but print and save is common across a wide number of government agencies.”
We just know about the Lois Lerner email issue because people wanted it, but on any given day there is “very likely some other official’s email that’s vanished” for a long time, she said.
So, why is this print and save system in place?
“Because it was easy,” she said. “Then, nobody really had to think about it.”
And Congress has been aware of the problem, she said, adding that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has discussed the issue of federal records and record-keeping “many, many times” in the past and that the Government Accountability Office has issued numerous reports “on problems of record-keeping and talking about how different agencies have different problems” and how a “large portion of federal agencies that are not preserving their records in accordance with the law.”
Members of the House Oversight panel in “this recent IRS debacle”’ sound “shocked and appalled,” as if they’ve never heard there could be email problems, but their outrage is “nothing more than a charade,” she said.
On why nothing’s happened if Congress has known about this issue:
“I think [because] basically, record keeping is a boring issue and it only becomes interesting when somebody’s records are missing,” she said, also citing cost.
After mentioning previous cases of missing emails, she said “we’ve seen time and time again, these problems arise, and yet somehow what we’ll have is a couple of months of outrage” with perhaps hearings or letters, followed by the issue dying down “never to be heard again until the next scandal.”
Can this issue be fixed anytime soon?
It would take “real will on the part of Congress to solve it,” she said.
Doing so would require both amending the Federal Records Act and devoting “some real resources,” she said.
They’d have to fund the change and that “doesn’t seem to be in the offing,” she said.
“Instead they just want to complain a lot about it and be outraged, and we’ll go through this and then in two years there’ll be another scandal just like it,” she said.