Report Finds Gaps in Federal E-Mail Records
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 9, 2008; A07
Federal officials inconsistently preserve government e-mail, creating gaps in the public record and making it difficult for the public to understand the activities of the government, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office yesterday.
The report came before a scheduled House vote today on a bill that would create standards for the electronic storage of e-mail by federal agencies.
As the use of e-mail has increased dramatically, federal agencies are struggling to determine which e-mails can be deleted, which must be preserved as public records and how those records should be stored.
Current law gives agencies broad discretion to determine how electronic records and communications are maintained. Quality varies widely, according to the GAO.
Investigators looked at four agencies -- the Homeland Security Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development -- and found that all used an inefficient and insecure process of "print and file": printing e-mails and storing them in paper form. Only one agency, the EPA, was converting to an electronic system to store e-mail records.
The GAO examined electronic records kept by 15 senior officials at the four agencies and found that seven complied with all federal requirements governing the preservation of electronic records, but eight did not consistently meet them.
Meanwhile, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the federal agency charged with ensuring that other departments properly store e-mail, stopped making inspections shortly after President Bush took office in 2000, the report said.