Imagine getting fired over a text message.
The United States House of Representatives decided in September of this year to include text messages “among the electronic communications federal employees could be fired for improperly destroying.”
Called the Federal Records Accountability Act and introduced by Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., it addresses any federal employees an inspector general found knowingly “concealed, removed, mutilated, obliterated, falsified, or destroyed any record, book, or other thing” controlled by the offending employees. Republicans and Democrats alike supported the bill, which was approved unanimously by voice vote.
The bill also prevents federal employees from using personal devices to conduct official business unless an electronic record of the communication is created. All email, instant messages or text messages sent from a personal device regarding agency business must be officially recorded. A worker found guilty of manipulating records would face suspension and receive a written statement of the charges within 15 days. The worker can defend him or herself in the 15 days after receiving the notice, and has the right to a Merit Systems Protection Board hearing and appeal.
Meadows says the bill is “common sense legislation,” and that it will improve transparency and historical preservation.
“Intentional destruction of records is a criminal act,” Meadows noted. “Federal employees found guilty of such a crime should be fired.”
Scandals at the Internal Revenue Service and Environmental Protection Agency prompted the bill, as employees of each were charged with purposefully destroying records. Criticisms by lawmakers concerning federal managers using personal devices for official business is nothing new, however.
“It wasn’t one agency,” Meadows said, “it was plethora of agencies that have communication going on a regular basis that isn’t being preserved.”
Yet the Project on Government Oversight does not fully support the bill as the optimal way to deal with the transparency issues raised by the IRS and EPA scandals. Joe Newman, a POGO spokesman, told Government Executive the bill was “too narrow” and mainly punished “whistleblowers.”
“We're always happy when Congress moves to increase transparency and accountability but we're not sure this bill is the best way to do that,” Newman said. “There are long-standing problems with federal record keeping practices that need to be addressed but it might be a better approach if Congress looked at the system as a whole, rather than tailoring legislation to address a specific scandal.”
Some government agencies, such as U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, are expanding use of Short Message Service (SMS) technology to provide better services. It has also been suggested that government text messages should be used in other ways. Texting is most popular among young people, and could be a vehicle for the Department of Health and Human Services or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to send anti-smoking messages.