IT politics killed White House email project

Summary:Data archiving in the White House is a serious business mandated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which was passed following the Watergate scandal. The Act requires the White House to maintain an historical archive of its activities, policies, and decisions. Despite this law, the White House email archiving system is a model of poor IT practice and has been called "primitive," "inadequate," and "not robust." The system fails to fulfill its most basic requirements: enabling reliable backup, storage, and restore capabilities.

Data archiving in the White House is a serious business mandated by the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which was passed following the Watergate scandal.The Act requires the White House to maintain an historical archive of its activities, policies, and decisions. Despite this law, the White House email archiving system is a model of poor IT practice and has been called "primitive," "inadequate," and "not robust." The system fails to fulfill its most basic requirements: enabling reliable backup, storage, and restore capabilities.

Email backup process. Quoted in a report by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, White House CIO, Theresa Payton, described how White House emails are archived using a manual method called "journaling:"

Under this process, a White House staffer or contractor would collect from a "journal" e-mail folder in the Microsoft Exchange system copies of e-mails sent and received by White House employees. After retrieving copies of these e-mails, the White House staffer or contractor would then manually name and save them as ".pst" files on various White House servers.

Former White House CIO, Carlos Solari, characterized the process:

[A]s a 'message collection system' even though we all understand that it hardly qualifies as a 'system' by the usual IT definition.

In a memo to Acting CIO, John Straub, in 2005, IT manager, John McDevitt, described the ad hoc system:

The current email archive process depends on manual operations and monitoring, standard operating procedures do not exist, automated tools that support the email archive process are not robust, and there is no dedicated archive storage location.

The report points out at least three fatal flaws with the manual email archive process:

  • Risk of data loss
  • Risk of tampering
  • Inability to verify system functionality

Email archiving project failure. In 2003, the White House initiated an Electronic Communications Records Management System (ECRMS) project to automate email archiving. Booz Allen Hamilton was contracted to design the system and Unisys was engaged to test and implement it. According to the internal government program director for the project, John McDevitt, the project was completed in the spring of 2004:

According to Mr. McDevitt, this design was presented to the White House Counsel, the White House Office of Records Management, and counsel in the Office of Administration "for their concurrence" in the spring of 2004. With Unisys serving as the contractor for the implementation phase, the White House undertook "[s]ystem configuration, testing and tuning" through 2005. In early 2006, standard operating procedures were developed. In March 2006, the White House Counsel, the White House Office of Records Management, and OA counsel were briefed on the system, and in July of 2006, they were briefed "on the search and retrieval capabilities of the ECRMS solution." Mr. McDevitt stated that the project was "ready to go live" on August 21, 2006.

Although the ECMRS was ready for use, current White House CIO, Theresa Payton, terminated the project in 2006 because:

"[t]he system would require 18 months to ingest the existing backlog of messages in the Microsoft Xchange system" and "[t]he system offered users no option to distinguish between Presidential records and political or personal materials."

The National Archives responded with objections to these reasons, suggesting they did not present sufficient cause to abandon the completed project and revert to manual, and therefore unreliable, email backup techniques.

THE PROJECT FAILURES ANALYSIS

Politics and other personal (and organizational) agendas are usually to blame for IT failure. By any reasonable measure, the guardians of White House email used poor IT practice as a tool to circumvent applicable law, avoid disclosure, and maintain control over sensitive data.

Since IT underlies most modern business and government processes, decisions about software, infrastructure, and deployment can have broad ramifications for how leaders execute business strategy. In this case, it appears IT leadership deliberately made poor technical decisions to achieve a specific political strategy.

Update 5/6/08 5:00pm EST: To gain further insight into this situation, I spoke with David Gewirtz, author of the book Where Have All the Emails Gone?. Here's what David said:

White House email is broken. Their email archiving system is wildly inadequate to the point of negligence. Management of computer assets like laptops, flash drives, and BlackBerrys is completely non-existent.

Email in the White House needs to be fixed. Not because we want to give Congress a bigger stick with which to beat on Presidents, but because some really bad things could happen if it's not fixed. There are technical issues and concerns, plus security issues and concerns that blast through the political rhetoric and even party affiliation. The practice of archiving is a technical act, while the practice of disclosing is a political or policy act.

We need to make sure we archive the White House email traffic, but that doesn't mean confidential information must be disclosed to opposing parties or the general public.

Finally, there is breaking news out of the White House today. The White House has responded to Judge Facciola's request for disclosure of email messages during the first term of the Bush administration. I've just gotten those court documents and am working my way through them now. The gist of them seems to be that the White House does not believe further document recovery is warranted. I'm going to be working my way through the full document set and will publish an analysis of it, probably tomorrow.

Topics: Collaboration

About

Michael Krigsman is recognized internationally as an analyst, strategy advisor, enterprise advocate, and blogger. For CIOs and IT leadership, he addresses issues such as innovation, business transformation, project-related business objectives and strategy, and vendor planning. For enterprise software vendors and venture-funded star... Full Bio

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.