Advances in technology have brought new transparency to our democracy. Americans can interact with federal officials in real time. Citizens use Twitter and Facebook to have unfiltered conversations with their elected representatives — anytime and anywhere.
These innovations in direct digital democracy have increased government’s openness and accountability and lowered the barriers between public servants and the people they serve.
The challenge for policymakers is to ensure that these rapidly evolving transparency tools do not have the unintended consequence of allowing officials to hide their actions from public scrutiny and the historical record.
Consider the Presidential Records Act. In the wake of the Watergate scandal in 1978, Congress passed the PRA to guarantee that the records of the presidency would forever belong to the American people.
The records act requires that each administration preserve all “documentary material produced or received” by the White House to “assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions and policies that reflect the performance of [the president’s] constitutional, statutory or other official ceremonial duties are adequately documented.”
The growth of digital and mobile communications, however, has made compliance with the act more difficult. Problems with the White House e-mail archiving system plagued both the Clinton and the Bush administration. Addressing these problems has been expensive: The Bush administration spent more than $10 million to retrieve 14 million missing e-mails.
As federal agencies and employees adopt new technologies, the challenges and costs are likely to increase — unless Congress takes action. The rapid spread of social media, laptops, mobile phones and hand-held mobile devices in both private life and government has changed the way public officials work and interact. This revolution requires a fresh solution to capture and retain electronic records as the law requires.
When he took office, President Barack Obama committed “to making his administration the most open and transparent in history.” Nonetheless, the administration has faced numerous transparency setbacks.
In May, the White House officially reprimanded Andrew McLaughlin, deputy chief technology officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, for using his personal e-mail account for official business. McLaughlin’s Gmail messages included discussions with his former employer, Google, about policy matters under his review.
Furthermore, The New York Times revealed in June, lobbyists “routinely get e-mail messages from White House staff members’ personal accounts rather than from their official White House accounts.”
White House staff, according to the report, had used personal e-mail accounts to conduct official business and may have arranged hundreds of meetings with lobbyists that do not appear in the White House visitor logs. Unless these messages were properly archived and the meetings properly logged, as the PRA and other federal records laws require, important White House business is not available for scrutiny by the American people.
It is time for Congress to update federal records laws for the Facebook age. This update will serve everyone interested in strong oversight and an accurate historical record — Republican or Democrat. Common-sense improvements to federal records laws must accommodate the digital, mobile and hand-held tools Americans increasingly use to connect with one another — whether it’s friend to friend or citizen to Washington.
In addition, today’s laws lack basic enforcement mechanisms to ensure executive branch compliance. A vigorous discussion about digital transparency and accountability promises to produce clearer guidelines and leave a better historical record for future generations.
The White House can do its part by retaining all presidential records, like e-mails, social media posts and text or instant messages, including those sent by mobile devices. And staff members must be reminded of their record-keeping duties and held accountable for failure to follow clear guidelines.
“The way to make government accountable,” Obama has said, “is to make it transparent, so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made and whether their interests are being well-served.”
The proper preservation of federal records can turn that lofty promise into actual open government, transparency and accountability.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.