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

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.”

37 comments on this story

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.