Every administration does it. A new president, secretary of defense, or secretary of state enters office and they wipe their departmental website clean. On the one hand, it’s understandable—every new administration wants to style their own virtual presence. On the other, it’s wasteful—not quite so much as stamping state border signs with the name of a new governor every four or eight years, but still unnecessary.
The problem isn’t so much the redesign of the White House, departmental, and agency websites, however. Rather, the problem is that new administrations wipe them clean at the expense of history and ease of access to the public record.
President Obama not only wiped the White House website clean of all his predecessors’ speeches, but he also went above and beyond to edit the biographies of past presidents. That’s the type of thing that should never happen.
It is time to stop messing with online archives of the White House and U.S. departments. International challenges do not conform to the U.S. political calendar, but every president or secretary can impact disputes. Take the Arab-Israeli conflict: Obama’s June 4, 2009, Cairo address to the Arab world will remain important long after Obama leaves office. So, too, will George W. Bush’s June 24, 2002, declaration that “peace requires a new and different Palestinian leadership… not compromised by terror.” Yes, Bush maintains an archive website and presidential libraries are supposed to serve as repositories for past documents, but each administration’s record of speeches, press conferences, and other interactions are useful to understand the continuity of U.S. policy. That should transcend presidential ego.
The same holds true for the State Department. U.S. diplomacy did not begin when Secretary of State John Kerry took his seat on the seventh floor of the State Department. To erase the public remarks of his predecessor or that of her staff–let alone those of Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell–does a disservice not only to diplomats for whom understanding the broad context of policy might be important, but also for journalists, students, and the general public. Likewise, as the Iraq conflict spans a third administration, what Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld said, promised, or did remains relevant. The same holds true with Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, or Ashton Carter.
Part of the continuity of government across administrations should be the continuity of information. Neither the White House, the State Department, nor the Pentagon proved themselves adept at preserving information. Perhaps it is time to pass website management and archiving to a nonpartisan agency not unlike the Congressional Research Service, a library and information hub for the legislative branch.