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Maine’s broken e-mail system

When Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting asked for electronic copies of e-mails between the chairman of the Maine Public Utilities Commission and representatives of companies the PUC dealt with, she did not expect to receive a cost estimate of $10,000 from the state – nor to be required to pay $80 for the privilege of receiving that estimate.

And when she wrote back asking for that exorbitant fee to be waived, as allowed in state law, because she is a reporter for a non-profit organization publishing its material in more than 20 newspapers around the state, she did not expect to get a revised estimate of $36,239.52. (Happily, she was not charged to receive that new figure, though in a passing encounter with the PUC’s chief lawyer, she did have to hear complaints about “all the work you’re making us do.”)

The cost is clearly outrageous, and a barrier to public access to information that belongs to the public. But here’s the really surprising thing the Portland Phoenix has learned from just a little research into the matter: the estimate reflects the state’s actual cost to extract the information from its e-mail archive, which is so cumbersome that it’s next to impossible to actually use.

Greg McNeal, Maine’s chief information officer, says he and his staff have calculated that responding to a similar request (from an attorney involved in a lawsuit relating to state government) would take one of his two e-mail technicians an entire year of full-time work.

Hence the sky-high dollar amount: Even with a statutory limit of $10 per hour of state-employee time responding to freedom-of-information requests, the process of e-mail recovery is so lengthy that expenses easily rise into tens of thousands of dollars.

This clearly is not just delaying – and inflating the cost of – Schalit’s request, but court proceedings, and even internal state investigations performed at taxpayer expense (McNeal confirms that his agency bills other state agencies similar amounts for similar services.)

McNeal calls the backup mechanism “archaic,” and says he has been lobbying to improve it for some time now, but the state lacks both funding and a working example to adapt to Maine’s needs.

State archivist David Cheever uses the word “nightmare” to describe this situation, and goes on to say the e-mail backup system is “entirely unworkable.”

But Cheever and McNeal both say this is not a problem unique to Maine, which has roughly 12,000 state e-mail accounts, with thousands upon thousands of actual messages, which must all be backed up in a way that must somehow or other be accessible to the public and yet secure from destruction (and, in e-mail messages with criminal-justice information, secured from prying eyes according to strict federal rules).

Neither of them is aware of a state government that has a timely, inexpensive storage-and-retrieval method for state officials’ e-mail messages. (For that matter, Cheever says he just got back from a trip to the National Archives, which has also not yet devised a functioning system for billions of federal e-mails.)

The state can’t afford to experiment to find something that might work: “We don’t have the money to be wrong,” Cheever says. But every state is in that boat, and so all of them are sitting around waiting for someone else to experiment long enough to make something work.

Schalit’s reaction to this information was partially relief (that she apparently isn’t being singled out for obstructionism by state officials wary of her reporting), but also outrage. Calling the existence of a system like this “mind-boggling for anybody who has an interest in history,” she says, “If this is the kind of system they have installed for government business, there’s something wrong with the system.”

But it’s Cheever who has the best summary of the way things are right now for anyone interested in how state government is actually functioning: “There’s your haystack. Good luck with the needle.”