NARA creates panel to rewrite records rule

While the National Archives and Records Administration has convened a panel to develop guidelines for managing electronic federal records federal agencies are left to decide for themselves how to handle electronic mail and documents in the interim.

NARA's decision to convene the Electronic Records Work Group follows a court decision that voided a NARA rule allowing agencies to destroy digital versions of documents. Michael Miller director of NARA's record management program said the working group which was announced late last month was being planned before the Oct. 22 ruling but "I think this [ruling] has gotten us to get this out more quickly than we would have."

The group will study how to revise General Records Schedule (GRS) 20 a regulation that allowed agencies to destroy the digital versions of e-mail and word processing files if they printed out copies. In a case brought by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman ruled that the original electronic versions must be saved if their contents have historic value.

In addition the group plans to recommend in a report due Aug. 1 1998 "practical solutions for the scheduling and disposition of electronic records" as well as to identify existing methods for managing digital files according to a directive from archivist John Carlin. Carlin said the group would develop a plan to carry out its recommendations by the end of this fiscal year.

Meanwhile agency records managers are clamoring for temporary guidelines they can follow until new rules are in place. Some agencies plan to proceed with electronic records policies of their own. Looking for Direction "The thing that's really quite obviously missing is any direction to agencies in terms of what they should do in terms of management and disposition of these records " said Michael Tankersley the lawyer for Public Citizen who brought the suit.

"I would expect certainly the...agencies that are up on these issues will change their practices otherwise they're very vulnerable to consequences of failing to have a lawful disposition program in place." Miller said new guidelines will be delayed until the Justice Department provides an official interpretation of the court opinion. "We have a bulletin to agencies ready to go " Miller said.

"We need to get a definitive statement...as to which agencies are covered and what needs to be done." For example Miller said the government has not decided whether it plans to appeal the ruling. A DOJ spokesman said the government has until later this month to make its decision.

Rachel Van Wingen agency records officer with the Environmental Protection Agency said she has been told the ruling may not force records managers to change their practices immediately because it specifically prohibits only the agencies named in the case - the Executive Office of the President the White House Office of Administration and the U.S. Trade Representative - from following GRS 20. Miller said that is one interpretation of the decision.

Van Wingen said the EPA is not making any new document retention or destruction decisions based on the voided rule but the agency is not for now prohibiting records managers from disposing of records that were previously determined to be covered by the rule. Van Wingen said many of her agency's records schedules already have specific provisions for electronic files and "we will probably seek to amend" those that do not. Record schedules are the classification rules agencies use to determine what they should do with different types of documents after they are created.Other federal agencies also plan to proceed on their own.

Last Monday the Defense Department issued new standards for electronic records management systems that other agencies including NARA see as a potential model for the entire government. In January the Defense Information Systems Agency hopes to start testing several commercial software packages for compliance with these standards said Chuck Arnason a senior policy analyst with DOD. "I think we have a robust environment and leading-edge technology " Arnason said but most products have been designed "to meet a commercial need not a government standard."

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