Agencies in need of electronic records management solutions

Records-wise my friends the fat is now in the fire. U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman issued a summary judgment on Oct. 22 1997 agreeing that General Records Schedule 20 is arbitrary and capricious irrational and contrary to law. GRS 20 is the rule promulgated by the National Archives and Records Administration concerning federal electronic records. It says for information in electronic form that rises to the level of a federal record agencies must accomplish a transfer into an agency record-keeping system. The record-keeping system can be electronic or it can be paper meaning that agencies have had the option of printing out electronic records and filing the paper copies in traditional record-keeping systems.

This "paper loophole" allowed agencies to continue records management business as usual in our Electronic Age. And that's just what the vast majority of agencies have been doing: printing out their electronic records and saving the paper. The paper loophole was at the center of the court case. Public Citizen a nonprofit organization together with former journalist and plaintiff Scott Armstrong and others argued that paper printouts are not equivalent to their electronic originals. According to the plaintiffs when you shift from the electronic to the paper medium you lose unique and valuable features such as capabilities for searching manipulating indexing and telecommunicating the information. Paper copies simply do not capture the full administrative legal research and historical value of electronic records.

The judge agreed and declared GRS 20 null and void. He also found that NARA's issuance of the rule had improperly mixed together administrative and program records. So now what happens?

Assuming the government does not appeal the decision the obvious consequence seems to be that NARA must withdraw GRS 20. Federal agencies must end the practice of printing out electronic records and saving paper copies. If they don't they appear open to litigation based on the Friedman decision.

Agencies must start managing electronic records electronically. That means developing policies procedures and information systems for electronic records management. Electronic computer files that meet the standard of a federal record will have to be transferred into approved electronic record-keeping systems.

The problem is that federal electronic records management is still in its infancy. The Defense Department is on the verge of issuing as final its directive for a technical standard to govern software for records management applications. DOD will establish a testing center at Fort Huachuca Ariz. to test and certify software packages that meet the standard.

Insiders said that right now you can count on one hand the number of software systems that even pretend to offer records management functionality much less accomplish the deed. So even if an agency has the best intentions of transferring its electronic information into an electronic record-keeping system that meets federal records management standards it cannot today buy such a system off the shelf. NARA helped to develop the DOD standard and that fact gives hope that DOD's ground-breaking ideas will spread governmentwide. But nothing happens quickly in this field.

A few agencies have issued internal policy directives specifically on the subject of electronic records management but those directives tend to follow the GRS 20 paper loophole. The Environmental Protection Agency has a draft policy patterned after the DOD directive that is not GRS-20-dependent but the draft is still some distance from being final and official. A well-settled body of policy doctrine on electronic records management is conspicuous by its absence.

For years people have been counseling that the time to plan for records management is the point at which you first design an information system. And for years federal systems designers have been ignoring the advice and not worrying about the electronic records that come out the other end of their systems. Now the advice has the unequivocal backing of a federal court.

That should make the systems designers sit up and take notice.

-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Washington D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net.

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