Sunday, March 15, 2015

2008 GAO Helps Clinton on Email Records?

In the flap over Clinton's emails, I've not seen any mention of the GAO report in 2008 on problems in preserving e-records.  Turns out I included much of its summary and commented on it back then.

I won't repeat it here, but this paragraph is interesting in light of the current controversy:
"Preliminary results of GAO's ongoing review of e-mail records management at four agencies show that not all are meeting the challenges posed by e-mail records. Although the four agencies' e-mail records management policies addressed, with a few exceptions, the regulatory requirements, these requirements were not always met for the senior officials whose e-mail practices were reviewed. Each of the four agencies generally followed a print and file process to preserve e-mail records in paper-based recordkeeping systems, but for about half of the senior officials, e-mail records were not being appropriately identified and preserved in such systems. Print and file makes no sense--electronic is cheaper [regular type is GAO, italic is my 2008 comment]
 Let me repeat words: "followed a print and file process..."  In other words, the idea in these agencies, and I think generally throughout government, was:
  1. not all emails were official records worthy of retention, just as not all paper documents generated within an agency were official records worthy of retention. 
  2. someone was supposed to winnow the wheat from the chaff, go through the email, select the ones which merited retention, print them out, and file them in the paper filing system which was governed by records retention schedules approved by NARA. 
My comments then, though not well expressed, were based on these ideas:
  1. the cost of retaining all electronic records was low, and becoming lower with every year Moore's law applied
  2. the cost of reviewing, printing, and filing email as prescribed by NARA  was high
  3. the likelihood of a bureaucracy doing no. 2 in an effective way was very low, as borne out by GAO's report
  4. therefore, agencies should just keep all email in a searchable repository.
In the context of Clinton, there's two issues: the propriety of using a private email server for her work, on which I've no comment, and whether she complied with rules on preserving records, on which I will comment.  Clinton seems in the end to have complied better with the 2008 rules than many of the senior officials GAO looked at.  Were there changes in the rules after 2008?  I'm sure there were, as NARA continued to play a game of catchup, trying ineffectively to bring its filing systems and records retention systems into the modern word.  So I'm not saying she followed all applicable rules--she may have, may not have. I am saying her end result, in terms of selection and preservation, is well within the range for other senior officials. 

I'm also saying I was right in 2008--the simple effective rule is to retain all email records from email servers used for any government business, and let them be searchable.

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