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Why Are Governments Stuck in the Stone Age?

Cloud computing is a cheaper, more reliable way to manage electronic records than hard drives or paper -- yet a recent IRS scandal shows how governments at every level are slow to change their ways.

Last month, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) revealed that Lois Lerner, the tax agency official under investigation for allegedly mistreating Tea Party groups seeking tax exemptions, had lost copies of her emails when her hard drive crashed. But why was she was backing up email on a desktop computer in the first place?

It turns out that Lerner and other IRS officials were supposed to be following a policy of backing up emails on paper. But because the policy was unclear about how an email meets the standard of an official record, it doesn’t appear to have been followed or enforced.

When all records were paper-based, retention policies led to the storage of vast amounts of government records in warehouses. It was expensive but effective. But with the explosion of the Internet age, records management has become more complex. Today, virtually every government employee -- federal, state and local -- uses computers and sends emails yet the policies and standards for managing so many electronic records are vague and inconsistent. 

At the federal level, the IRS is just one of a number of agencies that still sets “paper-first” as the default practice. The notion that employees of federal agencies are still supposed to decide on their own which communications are important and print out emails as part of a records retention policy seemed baffling, especially for those organizations regulated by the IRS, such as financial organizations.

“How dare they [the IRS] demand higher standards of regulated companies than they do of the regulators,” fumed Megan McArdle, a columnist for Bloomberg View.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has been tracking the problem of managing electronic records for years, issuing several reports detailing serious problems with email management. So in 2012, the Obama administration issued a directive for all federal agencies to manage their email electronically by 2016. The policy, called “Capstone," will allow agencies to automatically categorize email based on the position of the employee, thereby capturing the emails that are “likely to create or receive permanently valuable federal records.”

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Of course, the feds aren’t the only government agencies to struggle with how to manage email. States, counties and cities have had their share of problems with emails that have gone missing, been accidentally deleted or left on hard drives that crashed. One of the biggest issues has to do with which emails to save externally and which can be deleted. Does government need to save every email generated by its employees? And for how long?

The state of Connecticut tried to limit retention policies to just those emails with content relating to state business, but since nearly all state business was being conducted electronically, the state found itself staggering under an increasingly large number of emails. In 2009, the state’s IT department reported it had to manage 56 million emails from 25,000 accounts at 44 agencies. At the time, state policy called for retaining all emails for up to two years on magnetic tapes used for archiving digital information offline -- a policy that still wouldn't have saved Lerner's IRS emails that were sent prior to 2011. Besides the costs of the hardware and software to manage the backup system, the state had to train employees to ensure they followed policy properly.

That was five years ago. Today, the number of emails handled by the state of Connecticut has only grown larger. Assuming the other 49 states are laboring under similar workloads to manage email, it’s clear that the time and costs of managing legacy technologies have become immense. 

Good retention policies are the underpinning to a smooth-running electronic records management system in government. Yet, in an age when anyone can get 50 gigabytes of free storage from Google, why is government still messing with backup tapes, hard drives and even paper? It’s a question that a lot of people inside and outside of government are asking.

During the congressional hearings into the IRS’ lost emails, Congressman Blake Farenthold of Texas suggested the IRS purchase each employee a terabyte hard drive from Amazon for $59, which would be a vast improvement from the IRS' current email storage limit of 500 megabytes per employee.

But even more advanced than that would be using cloud computing to access and store government emails on the Internet -- a direction that IT is headed. Cloud computing isn’t perfect (there have been outages), but lost emails are practically unheard of.  And while setting every government employee up on the Google cloud might not be the wisest policy, the cost of a cloud solution is far cheaper than the current systems most government agencies have in place.

Cloud computing has exploded in use, but according to IDC Government Insight, a technology research firm, barely 5 percent of the $80 billion that the federal government spends annually on IT goes toward cloud computing. Spending on cloud computing at the state and local level is thought to be even less. 

Cloud computing wouldn’t solve the entire records retention problem. For example, it will do nothing to ensure that records will be accessible 50 or 100 years from now, when we’ve moved on to new technology and Google, Amazon and Microsoft likely won’t exist. But at least it can take records keeping out of the hands of individual employees who may have very different ideas about what communications are really “important” enough to save. Policies like the existing one at the IRS are so complicated and hazy that they’re easy to ignore, which is how records get lost. 

The solution to Lerner’s email problems is simple and straightforward: build effective policies around today’s technology -- not yesterday’s. In the meantime, keep the toner cartridges for the printer well stocked. 

Tod is the editor of Governing . Previously, he was the senior editor at Government Technology and the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.
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