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The People v. The Counsel's Office

BY Michael Turk | Monday, January 26 2009

Will the openness and transparency promised at all levels of government come to pass? Or will the people be thwarted, yet again, by the law?

Those are questions that have been running through my head the last few days. I am keeping an open mind toward the Obama administration and the promises they have made regarding a new era of visibility into our government. I truly hope that a level of accountability can be brought to our government. I would love for the people to be able to see the sausage being made because it may turn them off of pork.

In one of the first accounts I read of the new technology paradigm, however, I was left questioning that commitment to transparency.

[O]fficials in the press office were prepared: In addition to having their own cellphones, they set up Gmail accounts, with approval from the White House counsel, so they could send information in more than one way.

I'm surprised that the counsel's office has allowed any White House staff to use Gmail accounts. I also think the optics of it stink given the parallel e-mail systems used by past Administrations to separate the "official" from the "political" messages.

The first FOIA request for those Gmail accounts served simultaneously to the White House and Google will probably disabuse them of their belief that Gmail is an acceptable channel for White House communications.

Suing a government agency for access to those materials is difficult enough. However, entrusting them to a commercial service raises the question of whether Google is now responsible for maintaining all of those e-mails in accordance with federal record keeping laws.

Things like IM and Gmail, while taken for granted by the general public in an era of fire-and-forget communications, have specific laws governing there use. Will the "openness and transparency" we hope for be skirted by shifting communications to a commercial channel with no record keeping obligations?

If so, shouldn't we be demanding that those records be kept? why is the White House Counsel's office recognizing a way around the very public record laws that are supposed to enforce transparency? Given that this is the press office, I cannot think of a press release so important that it warrants an exception to the right of the people to demand records be kept.

It is important to note that I allege no wrongdoing, and, in fact, I agree that the state of technology in our government (the principal thesis of the article linked above) is disgraceful. I also understand that the primary driver behind much of the reluctance to technological advancement can be laid at the feet of career bureaucrats.

While at Energy, I found myself in the middle of a minor controversy for suggest that the Department would upgrade from Windows 95 to Windows XP. The union threatened to file a grievance over any such change as it represented a dramatic "change in working conditions" that would confuse and cause stress to employees.

When the Obama team complains that they are being forced to use PCs with outdated operating systems and applications, I feel their pain. Government IT is a bad joke.

However, that does not give anyone a right to skirt records laws, and we need to question such decisions regardless of how old an operating system may be.