Troubling Approach On State Email

In a world that now runs on email, it is difficult to imagine anything more immediately destructive to the interests of government oversight and an open society

The latest in a string of shockers out of Albany came this week when it became known that the Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo administration had begun automatically purging the computers of state workers of email messages more than 90 days old.

In a world that now runs on email, it is difficult to imagine anything more immediately destructive to the interests of government oversight and an open society. For the news media and the courts, as well as ordinary citizens, the right of access to official documents and communications is absolutely fundamental to the separation of democracy from the siren temptations of authoritarianism. Other than those eager to cover up malfeasance or embarrassment, as well as to scrub the record in the face of a prospective presidential bid at some point by their boss, few could see this as even a remotely good idea.

First described by The Albany Times-Union, mass deletions of email messages began last week at as many as 27 state agencies and departments. In a statement already chilling to open-government activists, the governor’s new chief information officer wrote that the goal was a new, centralized, easy-to-clear email record “making government work better.” Nonsense. This is an attempt to make Albany more secretive than it already is and to help officials evade scrutiny when things go awry.

Few public initiatives take less than three months to complete, so getting rid of records at that point could well make the state’s work less efficient, not more, as important documents slip away. Allowing wholesale clearing of in-boxes will only make state officials’ jobs more difficult. Imagine the chaos as regulators have to think months back, perhaps to find out who may have received something of interest when a difficult task was tackled, and then circle around to get a replacement copy.

The state put out a list of categories of email that should be saved manually, as reported by ProPublica, but they covered conclusive or final actions rather than the process or reasoning behind them. In addition, the rules ran to an impossible 188 pages, itemizing 225 different types of records. Most troubling for the news media, plaintiffs, and outside groups, messages concerning administrative analysis, planning, and the development of procedures can be tossed out as soon as they’re “obsolete.”

The impulse for secrecy and to dodge accountability appears endemic on the American political scene from top to bottom. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used a private account for much of her communication while in that post. Former East Hampton Town Councilwoman Theresa Quigley maintained a personal gmail address from which she circulated board agendas to a select group of supporters. In each case, they appeared able to skirt document-retention rules.

It is only by hindsight that the importance of some messages can even be known. Consider a recent example in the State of New Jersey, where, five months after an unexplained lane closure on the George Washington Bridge, the discovery of a brief email exchange pointed to its political nature. The details of this scandal could not have been lost on Albany’s executive chamber. Under the new Cuomo retention policy, had that email emanated from a New York office, it would likely have been deleted well before it and other damning communications could have come to light.

With regard to open government, New York State officials at all levels already find it almost impossible to comply with Freedom of Information requests. Allowing massive quantities of email to dissolve into the ether will make things worse. For example, The East Hampton Star has been seeking without success a key document from August sent to the State Department of State that apparently laid out a suspect legal rationale for the planned Army Corps of Engineers downtown Montauk erosion-control project. Could that have been among the records deemed not worthy of preservation?

The new state rules also contain a disturbing Catch-22. Although those that might be subject to a Freedom of Information request are to be preserved, such requests must be filed within the allotted 90 days. Seek something on day 91, and it will be gone, in most cases. Moreover, those seeking information from government often do not know exactly what documents they want, only the subject and approximate date. It would therefore make sense to save everything. Certainly, the Microsoft system the state uses has the capacity — up to 30 years’ worth of email, according to reports. Federal policy is to hold on to email for at least seven years, and permanently for executive staff.

If the wholesale destruction of email is allowed to continue, it will leave huge gaps in the record, diminish confidence in government, and hide wrongdoing. The policy must be reversed, ideally by the New York Legislature’s passing a bill that forces Mr. Cuomo’s hand.