Ruling sends agencies scrambling

A federal court ruling that blocks agencies from deleting important e-mail and word processing files has government agencies hustling for ways to preserve their burgeoning digital archives. U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled late last month that agencies cannot discard the electronic versions of documents that have historical significance voiding a 1995 National Archives and Records Administration regulation that let officials substitute paper printouts for their original computer files. Federal records officers and technology managers said the decision affirms their need for information systems to maintain these records although they are not sure whether they will have the money to buy them.

"What this is going to force and we are already going down this path is choosing electronic record-keeping systems " said Rachel Van Wingen an agency records officer with the Environmental Protection Agency. "We don't have the budget for it [but] I certainly view this as an opportunity to make the case with our [chief information officer]."

In the interim NARA deputy archivist Lewis Bellardo said records managers should not "panic." He said NARA would advise agencies this week what to do with their files and describe a "longer-range plan" - which archivists began to develop last summer - to revise the nullified regulation.

In the two years since NARA first issued the rule known as General Records Schedule 20 "technology has changed " Bellardo said. "If there are better ways of addressing these issues...let's do them." The government has not decided however whether it will appeal the court ruling which also said NARA had improperly ceded authority to agencies to make decisions about their records.

Friedman's decision issued Oct. 22 said the NARA policy was illegal because it allowed agencies to destroy electronic documents based on their format without assessing their long-term value. Friedman wrote that electronic records have "unique and valuable features " such as "searching manipulating and indexing capabilities " that cannot be duplicated on paper.

The case was brought by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen along with historians journalists and librarians who said their research efforts would be hampered by the broad destruction of digital files.

"I'm sitting at a computer now " said Scott Armstrong a former journalist and one of the plaintiffs in the case. "Beside me are 17 file boxes of material. I haven't looked at one of them because I can't find anything in them."

The ruling overturns a regulation that NARA issued to help agencies comply with an earlier court case brought by some of the same plaintiffs which resulted in a decision that e-mail files counted as federal records. At the time critics complained that the rule did not do enough to force agencies to deal with their digital files.

While NARA does not know the extent to which agencies are now managing their records electronically several records officials contacted last week by FCW said they were printing out those documents they had to save. In a 10-year strategic plan that NARA published last month for electronic records management the agency said that at the end of this period only half of federal automated record-keeping systems would comply with standards it has yet to issue.

The current court decision comes only a few weeks before the Defense Department is scheduled to test for the first time commercial software packages to see if they meet functional requirements it has developed for electronic record-keeping systems.

Many civilian agencies view these requirements under development for the past three years as the probable model for their own records management systems.

EPA Invites Vendors

Meanwhile the EPA is drafting its own policy which it plans to circulate early next year Van Wingen said. In addition the agency has invited several vendors to describe their wares at an internal records management conference later this month.

With a set of software options in hand agencies could proceed to build new systems but officials interviewed for this story said they have not yet budgeted for them. "Clearly we'll have to provide some kind of capability for electronic records management " said Constance Drew assistant director with the Treasury Department's Office of Information Resources Management. She added however: "The big impact right now is Year 2000 on IT budgets and that has to take priority."

Agency records managers said they now also need clear guidelines for culling important electronic files for preservation - to sort out routine "housekeeping" documents with no long-term value from files that pertain to policy-making.

"We really do need that vision thing and some objectives and milestones to go along with it " said Owen Ambur a staff assistant with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Information Resources Management.

Margaret Hedstrom associate professor with the University of Michigan's School of Information said existing rules "can at least serve as a basis" for determining which electronic documents are important to keep. In addition she said "There needs to be consideration for what added value they have because the records are in digital form."

NARA critics that have chastised the agency for not having such guidance already in place think the court decision gives these requirements more urgency.

Electronic records "have existed for a good while now and the government should deal with it " said Patrice McDermott a policy analyst with OMB Watch a government watchdog group. "The agencies and NARA are right - there are difficulties but [Friedman] is right that that doesn't matter."


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