Here Now and Soon Gone
Government accountability may be more of a slogan than a reality if agencies continue to fall down on their recording-keeping obligations. According to the New York Times, countless federal records have been irretrievably lost because federal employees regularly fail to preserve the documents they create on government computers, send by email, and post on agency websites. The EPA’s website, for instance, lists more than 50 broken links that once connected readers to documents on depletion of the atmosphere’s ozone layer. At least 20 documents have been removed from the website of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, including a draft report that was highly critical of the Bush Administration’s civil rights policies. Because federal agencies increasingly publish reports on the Web rather than on paper, and because agencies do not store records in a centralized manner, government records will simply disappear over time. Moreover, a recent GAO report notes that email records of senior officials at several large agencies were not consistently preserved. Those government records can never be checked.
The National Archives is in the early stages of creating a permanent electronic record-keeping system. Unfortunately, it is behind schedule and under budget. Although the House passed a bill in July that would require agencies to preserve more electronic records, President Bush has threatened to veto the bill on the grounds that it would “interfere with a president’s ability to carry out his or her constitutional and statutory responsibilities.” Government officials and employees who have not adhered to federal record-keeping rules likely will not start now, especially with the turnover in administration looming. Government records needed to assure accountability should not be here now and soon gone.