Preserving White House Emails… Eventually

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The missing White House email scandal raises one very obvious set of questions. Namely: Where’d they go and what did they say? Those questions will hopefully be addressed as Congress investigates the controversy, but the inquiries won’t answer another, perhaps equally important question: How can this be prevented from happening again?

The solution may lie in a new piece of House legislation, a summary of which was circulated at an unexpectedly pre-empted Oversight hearing that had been scheduled for today. Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO), chair of the Information Policy, Census, and National Archives subcommittee has sponsored the Electronic Communications Preservation Act, which modernizes the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act and “directs the Archivist [of the United States] to issue regulations requiring agencies to preserve electronic communication in an electronic format.”

The bill comes on the heels of two recent reports–one by the Government Accountability Office and another by the non-profit government watchdog organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington–each of which found that federal agencies, lacking uniform guidelines for preserving electronic records, have regularly resorted to “print and file” systems, resulting in significant losses of official documents.

The hearing itself was postponed at the last minute because of a series of votes on the House floor, but in prepared testimony (which remains unofficial and subject to change until the rescheduled hearing is conducted) one open-government advocate suggests that the bill doesn’t go far enough. Addressing the portion of the bill which updates the Federal Records Act, Patrice McDermott, director of openthegovernment.org noted that the National Archives and Record Administration “has been talking since at least 1996 about working ‘with agencies on the design of recordkeeping systems for creating and maintaining records of values.'”

“[T]he agencies,” she wrote, “have done nothing. NARA and the agencies don’t need another 18 months to ‘establish mandatory minimum functional requirements…’ Nor do the agencies need three more years–beyond the 18 months–to comply with a requirement to implement the regulations and an electronic records management system.” The bill summary notes that the Archivist will have “18 months to promulgate the regulations,” and that agencies “will have no more than four years following the enactment of the Act to comply.”

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