'Tomahtoes' get in the way of saving e-records

Subtle differences in language between IT, archivists wreak havoc

When it comes to managing electronic records, technologists may say "tomato," but archivists will say "tomahto." The differences may seem subtle, but they often result in a breakdown in communications that undermines the effort to protect e-records.

A notice this month in NARA's Federal Register states that the agency plans to get rid of Clinton-era backup tapes. This illustrates a larger communication problem among government IT workers and archivists, historians and records management experts say.

This is not only the case for e-records. Similar problems exist for other issues such as creating an effective enterprise architecture and implementing financial management systems. But one of the most enduring divides has been on the issue of e-records.

NARA's notice about the Clinton records drew fire from historians who saw the potential for losing a piece of history in the notice's vague wording.

Journalist and historian Scott Armstrong, who successfully sued the government to retain other backup e-records, filed a comment with NARA. "I confess I cannot understand the Federal Register posting on the 'Proposed Disposal of Clinton Administration Electronic Backup Tapes,'" he wrote. "However, if I understand the convoluted prose and double negatives correctly, it is a notification that NARA intends to destroy unique electronic data contained regarding the operation of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration."

As written, the proposal would preserve the backup e-records from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations that Armstrong had successfully sued to save, but would dispose of 9,193 backup tapes from the Clinton administration, including e-mail messages, calendars and call logs of senior officials at NSC.

To publicly clarify the issue during a hearing on another matter, Rep. Ed Towns (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Government Reform Committee, asked Michael Kurtz, assistant archivist in NARA's Office of Records Services, to assure lawmakers that the disposal of Clinton-era tapes would not result in the loss of data contained on those tapes.

"There would be no loss of information," Kurtz said. "That is what we intended to convey in our Federal Register notice."

After the hearing, NARA officials contacted Armstrong and acknowledged that the notice was incorrect as it is written.

Contrary to the notice's wording, the tapes in question do not contain any Clinton-era e-mail messages, but only contain the calendars and phone logs of a small number of NSC staff. In addition, despite the notice's wording, NARA insists all the logs and calendars are fully backed up. The notice wrongly states that NARA preserved only a snapshot from the last day of the Clinton administration.

The notice pertains to the data from older software known as Professional Office System (PROFS), which was used to maintain electronic calendars and call logs to schedule daily activities and appointments. A proprietary IBM office management tool, PROFS was carried over from prior administrations and used by only a few NSC employees during the Clinton administration. The notice fails to identify precisely whose records were included.

Most importantly, the notice fails to say that every NSC e-mail message from the Clinton presidency was written on a different system and was already preserved.

The hardware and software on which those systems run last for a limited time. The IT people who program them often no longer work at the agencies when it is time to give records to NARA. NARA has "got to work on training the agency records management staff to be very accurate in their descriptions of systems," Armstrong said.

NARA officials said that although keeping up with e-recordkeeping systems is daunting in general, archival staff did a detailed review of the contents of the Clinton-era backup tapes. The results led them to conclude that the tapes do not need to be preserved anymore.

The Federal Register notice was a collaborative effort, according to NARA officials, who added that writing about complicated issues that impact several NARA offices can be challenging. Officials are attempting to clarify their intent to reduce misunderstandings.

NARA e-records specialists say the difficulty in records retention rests on many shoulders. Michael Carlson, director of NARA's Electronic and Special Media Records Services Division, leads the unit that receives e-records from agencies. He said there must be better communication among agency IT workers, agency records management workers and NARA to ensure that system records are identified and presented to NARA in a format officials can preserve.

NARA has been slow to issue appropriate instructions to agencies. In fact, it created e-records guidelines only recently, in 2003.

Agencies often give NARA all the hardware and software housing the records, burying the data. "The intent of an archives is not to re-create systems but to preserve the records," Carlson said. Because technology is constantly changing, the hardware and software will be outdated by the time researchers want to access the records.

He acknowledges that it is difficult, but not impossible, to separate the wheat from the chaff. "Fifty or 100 years from now, we want researchers to be able to use the records that we collect now. ... What we ask agencies to do is to transfer the data to us and not the systems," he said.

Armstrong fears that NARA's inability to implement firm guidelines for agencies will result in a gap in the government's official record. NARA guidelines still permit agencies to destroy e-mail messages and other e-records. Federal records officers acknowledge that communicating with IT managers is an uphill battle.

Part of the problem is that discerning the historical value of everyday e-mail messages is an afterthought for agency officials, historians say.

"Many federal employees have no idea that it is one of their responsibilities to maintain their records," especially e-mail messages, said Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History.

Historians complain about techies and archivists shouting at one another, but the historians do offer some solutions. Anna Kasten Nelson, a historian in residence at American University, suggests that agency IT officers devise a mechanism to separate the insignificant "Where do you want to eat lunch?" e-mail messages from the substantive ones, such as "Here is a draft of the legislation I am about to introduce."

"I think that if IT officers begin to think in terms of history, technology can help them determine what to keep and what to throw away," Nelson said.

"The only way I know to fix the problem is for IT specialists and archivists/records managers to sit down together and talk through some issues until they understand one another's meanings and contexts," said J. Timothy Sprehe, an information resources management consultant and Federal Computer Week columnist.

FOIA faces an e-challenge

The right to access government records — the foundation of an open and accountable democracy — faces more challenges in the Information Age.

Freedom of Information Act requests have increased 71 percent between 2002 and 2004. And the backlog has been growing, rising 14 percent since 2002, according to Government Accountability Office testimony.

In March, Congress introduced the Faster FOIA Act of 2005, which would establish a 16-member commission charged with finding ways to reduce delays. The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the legislation, which now awaits full Senate consideration.

At a hearing of the House Government Reform Committee's Government Management, Finance and Accountability Subcommittee this month, FOIA requesters testified that information technology could expedite the process.

Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, testified that government officials should tag classified information with metadata at a document's inception and post all documents suitable for release on the Internet, ending the need for FOIA requests.

More agencies should accept FOIA requests through their Web sites, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. Aftergood cited the Energy Department, NASA and Defense Department as examples of agencies that accept online requests. But the CIA's Web site, for instance, does not include that feature.

Aftergood also suggested more controversial electronic initiatives, such as recommending that the government post FOIA logs and even FOIA responses on the Internet so that other people can access the information. "It would allow multiple users to benefit from the individual FOIA transactions," he said, adding that widely published FOIA records would cut processing fees and time.

But "in some cases, requesters would not like that," Aftergood said. "Individual reporters would not like others looking over their shoulders to see what they are requesting."

— Aliya Sternstein

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