When it comes to transparency, new technology can be both a blessing and a curse, and when you're talking about White House transparency the blessings and the curses can assume epic proportions.
The administration can more easily than ever communicate with the American people through its websites, e-mail accounts, and social media platforms. But who's keeping track of all those White House tweets for the sake of history? The chairman of the House Oversight Committee wants to know the answer to that question.
“White House policy instructs staffers who receive emails on unofficial or personal accounts which contain official business to voluntarily preserve those emails as Presidential Records,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in a statement last week. “The policy does not address the preservation of records which may be generated from personal use of Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging, SMS or other forms of communication.”
Issa's panel held a hearing on Tuesday to exam the workings of the 33-year old Presidential Records Act in the age of Twitter and how it can be modernized. The law was passed after Watergate as a way to preserve the official records of the president and vice president, and eventually make them available to the public.
Issa said that while the Act preserves a lot of information, it was written at a time that did not anticipate all the new media tools now at the disposal of any administration, and therefore is in need of modernization. The writers of the original law, Issa pointed out, never could have envisioned an iPad.
“People can carry a product which circumvents your entire system,” Issa said to Brook Colangelo, the White House chief information officer, while waving an iPad. “Nothing stops someone from using this to communicate freely from the White House, using AT&T to use Gmail, et cetera.”
In prepared remarks for the hearing, Colangelo pointed out that "staff have received guidance that the Presidential Records Act applies to work-related electronic communications over both official and personal accounts, which includes social networks."
David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, said he agrees with Issa that the law may need reworking.
“To put it simply, the government cannot be open or accountable if it does not preserve – and cannot find – its records,” Ferriero said at the hearing. He also noted that the “web landscape is evolving so rapidly that if we neglect to address these issues, we risk losing the truly valuable materials created by the federal government."
At the same time, however, Ferriero noted that it really is a system based on trust.
“Ultimately, responsibility for records management will always rest to some degree with individual federal employees, no matter what systems are in place,” he said. “That was true in an era of exclusively paper records, and it remains true in an increasingly digital age.”
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This article appears in the May 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.