Thursday, January 21, 2010

White House IT + Web 2.0 = records management issues

Earlier today, Slate's Farhad Manjoo examined why the Obama administration hasn't been able to live up to its campaign promises to use social media and other Web tools to promote government accountability and responsiveness. His discussion of one of the problems facing the administration -- antiquated information technology -- sent all of my archivist/records manager concerns into overdrive.

According to Manjoo, the Obama campaign had access to state-of-the-art information technology and hired incredibly talented social media personnel (a Facebook co-creator among them) and found that entering the White House was like stepping back in time:

"The computers were so old they couldn't actually run social-media Web sites" like Facebook, says Alan Rosenblatt, the associate director of online advocacy for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Even when the staff got better tech, federal computing policies restricted access to many sites; Rosenblatt says that some staffers had to bring in their own laptops with wireless modems in order to get on the Web.

Some of these difficulties have since been ironed out, and the White House managed to work out special terms of service with some social-networking sites in order to post content online. But Rosenblatt says that there are still staffers who need to bring in their own machines to get anything done [emphasis added].

President Obama has been in office for more than a year, and EOP staff are still using their own laptops do official government work? I'm a civil servant, and I fully recognize that laws and policies must be observed. I also realize that in some instances, people use their own computers to get work done at home or on the road. I've done it myself on occasion, and I'm generally fine with the practice provided that a) employer policy doesn't prohibit it; b) legally restricted or classified information isn't involved; and c) record copies of all work product make their way into the employer's servers, content management system, or other storage resources as appropriate.

Nonetheless, I really would like to know why moving the White House's information technology infrastructure into the 21st century is taking such a long time. I suspect that legitimate security concerns are slowing things down, but allowing government information to reside on computers that may be used to check personal e-mail, watch videos on YouTube, access Facebook, or play World of Warcraft really isn't an appropriate stopgap measure.

Moreover, how is EOP ensuring that the government information on these computers is being managed properly and that the Presidential Records Act isn't being violated? Is use of personal computing equipment limited to creation of social media content that will likely be preserved via other means, or is it common practice throughout EOP? Is there some sort of policy governing use of personal computing equipment to create official records, and if so, is it backed up with training and credible enforcement efforts? If EOP isn't addressing these issues, it might have a big problem on its hands one day . . . .

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