Robert Bennett: Let's hope the 'missing emails' scandal will impact bureaucratic inertia

By Robert Bennett, For the Deseret News

Published: Mon, June 23, 2014, 12:00 a.m. MDT

 May 22, 2013 - Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner on Capitol Hill in Washington.

May 22, 2013 - Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official Lois Lerner on Capitol Hill in Washington.

(J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

Washington is abuzz over the discovery that emails written by Lois Lerner, the IRS official accused of improperly targeting conservative groups for harassment, have been lost. “A crime,” say Republicans on the committee that subpoenaed them, pointing out that the erasure eliminated the exact two years in which the improper targeting allegedly took place and occurred just 10 days after Rep. David Camp wrote to then-IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman to raise the issue. “That’s deliberate destruction of evidence.” “No,” says the White House. “There’s a regrettable but simple explanation. The hard drive crashed on its own.”

Megan McArdle, an information technology (IT) specialist, agrees that the timing of the deletion looks suspect but thinks the White House explanation could still be right. IRS IT procedures are far beneath anything considered acceptable in private industry. Writing in “Bloomberg View,” she says, “My friends who work in regulated sectors such as finance are outraged by the IRS's description of how it was running its backup process, because the government subjects them to constantly ratcheting standards for document retention — specifying how long, and on what format, they have to keep every communication ever generated by their firms. How dare they demand higher standards of regulated companies than they do of the regulators?”

“In 2014, every government agency should be storing every e-mail that goes in or out in an easily accessible format. That they weren’t bothering suggests that the IRS does not expect to deliver the kind of accountability that it routinely demands of taxpayers. That’s potentially a much bigger problem than anything Lois Lerner stands accused of — and it should be rectified, government-wide, with all due speed.”

In short, conspiracy or no, the government’s computer systems are in a colossal mess.

I’m not surprised. Long before this controversy, IT experts who deal with government agencies told me how appalled they were by the conditions of most government IT systems. Business executives who have taken Cabinet positions have discovered the same thing. Inertia — “An object in motion stays in motion, and in the same direction, unless acted upon by an outside force" — is a law of organizational behavior as well as physics. Unless moved upon by an outside force, any government agency will act the same way today as it did yesterday, which perpetuates the use of obsolete systems and procedures.

The outside force in this case should be the Congress, which has constitutional power over spending. However, its current focus is almost entirely on the total amount spent in any given fiscal year rather than the details, having ceded most of that control to the executive branch. That encourages an agency to stick with outmoded systems. The cost of replacing them will show up in the current year’s total while the gains in efficiency and savings that will result won’t appear until next year’s or beyond.

In today’s political atmosphere, that’s trumpeted as “fiscal responsibility.” Elsewhere, it’s called “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Back to the missing emails. Unless someone admits to having done it, we will probably never know whether the deletion was conspiratorial or coincidental. What we do know is that it is possible, perhaps even likely, that similar events will happen again unless Congress starts providing the money and driving the change that will impact bureaucratic inertia and bring the government’s IT systems into the 21st century. That means passing appropriations bills that dictate specifics as well as the total, which is how things used to be done.

If the “scandal of the missing emails” produces that result, it will have been a good thing after all.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

1. red state pride
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
June 23, 2014

So Senators Cruz and Lee were out of line for "shutting down the government" because they were opposed to the never ending "omnibus" spending bills that the President insists Congress has to pass? Oh, those awful conservatives! It's Congress' own fault for essentially giving up their Constitutional prerogative to control how Federal money is appropriated.
I have a better solution than Mr Bennett for dealing with the IRS though. It has to be eliminated. We know the IRS improperly targeted conservative groups. We know confidential tax information was released. We know that in 2008 98% of political donations by IRS employees went to Democrats. We know that the IRS is the most feared agency in America.
Obviously the Federal Government needs a revenue collection agency but we have to start from scratch. The current IRS is obviously corrupt. We have to either have a flat tax or a fair tax and a new, and a much smaller and less intimidating revenue agency to replace the current IRS.

2. Roland Kayser
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
June 23, 2014

Good commonsense piece. Which means it will be rejected in Washington.

I'd also like to remind anyone that thinks this is a great Obama conspiracy of the 22 millions emails that went missing during the Bush administration.

3. Ultra Bob
Cottonwood Heights, UT,
June 23, 2014

I long for justice for all Americans, even for those in service to the American people by being a part of government. If a person uses the Constitutional protection to refuse to testify against themselves, which would even include e-mails, they should not be treated as criminals.

When a government official or other highly regarded person makes a charge against another, along with the words "I believe, I think, my opinion, I feel", or any other disclaimer in the Press or any other public media, it should be regarded as an actual charge of the crime and require all the protections granted by our Constitution.

If such a person upon making criminal charges against another, fails to bring those charges in a court of law, he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for making false charges.

I do not believe that freedom of speech and the Press was intended to allow people to lie and not be accountable.

4. JoeCapitalist2
Orem, UT,
June 23, 2014

I have no doubt that if the IRS officials wanted to find those emails, they could do it in a New York Minute. The stonewalling of this and other investigations is amazing. All I can say is that the evidence must be really, really bad to warrant this blatant of a cover-up.

The hard drive crash (if there really was one) is a convenient excuse to pretend that this means all those incriminating emails are "lost forever". If all the emails really are gone, then the only question is: Did those who destroyed them cover all their tracks? Each email has at least two copies (one at the sender's end, the other at the recipient's).

Someone within the organization would be aware of the cover-up and could blow the whistle. It is very difficult to do anything electronically without leaving some kind of evidence behind. The truth will most likely eventually come out. The only question is: can that moment be delayed long enough for either the next election or for the voters to no longer care?

5. Vanceone
Provo, UT,
June 23, 2014

Hey, for those questioning "mistake or deliberate:" Turns out that the IRS had a private company that they paid to back up emails, etc. Only weeks after Lois Lerner's emails "Disappeared" that contract was not renewed. Too bad the IRS hasn't volunteered the existence of their contract with this company.

Oh, this company is run by an Obama campaign worker........., Sonasoft.

Here's the link: here.