Few Consider Web Documents Official Records, Study Shows

Despite recent high-profile court battles over the preservation of electronic records, most federal and state officials have limited awareness of the possibility that information posted to World Wide Web sites may qualify as records, according to a study released last week.

The study, "Guidelines for Electronic Records Management on State and Federal Agency Web Sites," also concluded that current records legislation may prove difficult to apply to emerging computing technologies used by these agencies.

Charles McClure, distinguished professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and one of the study's two principal researchers, said several officials interviewed for the study — especially at the state level — unequivocally denied that documents posted to the Web qualified as official records.

"Most federal and state officials are just only beginning to see that records management of Web sites is a bona fide area of records management," McClure said. "Most would prefer that it's not there."

The study notes, however, that primary records-management principles for state and federal Web sites require that data qualifying as a record posted to a Web site must be transferred into that agency's record-keeping system. For federal agencies, the issue has been complicated further by a recent court ruling that voided a National Archives and Records Administration regulation that allowed agencies to destroy e-mail and word processing files as long as they print out hard copies of the documents.

"In the life of an official record, there may be no print version that ever happens," McClure said. "The idea that you can make a print copy of everything...just isn't feasible anymore."

Catherine Teti, director of records management and information policy at the Office of Thrift Supervision and a member of an electronic records working group chartered in December by the National Archivist, said the court ruling that voided NARA's regulation has left many agencies without official guidance on electronic records management.

"A lot of agencies feel they are really flying blind right now," Teti said. "They're looking for someone to lead...and provide some guidance," she said. "The only approved way you have now is paper and microfilm."

The Office of Management and Budget has been working for more than a year on crafting guidelines for agency use of the Web. OMB also planned to provide agencies with general records-management guidelines.

Officials from OMB and NARA could not be reached for comment last week.

Electronic records-management policy has proved to be the main sticking point in finalizing those guidelines, said Patrice McDermott, information policy analyst with OMB Watch, a government watchdog group. OMB officials had planned to point agencies to the NARA regulations before they were voided in court, she said.

The study also found that state and federal agencies increasingly are using Web sites to post real-time, interactive data - such as public comments for proposed rules accepted electronically or data generated during an online public hearing - which may prove difficult to capture in a record-keeping system. Some agencies have resorted to taking "digital snapshots" of agency Web pages several times a day in an attempt to preserve constantly changing Web postings, McClure said. "The technology has way distanced our capability and understanding of how to do records management in this networked environment," he said.

For example, the Census Bureau is grappling with the electronic records-management issue as it plans to permit employees to generate electronic statistical representations of data for the Web that were formerly produced as hard copies, said Valerie Gregg, the Census representative to the World Wide Web Federal Consortium.

"As you build your data products on the fly...the question is, 'Each time you have that sort of interaction, is there an archiving process that goes on as well?' " Gregg said. "As the electronic technologies have evolved, so [has] the way agencies view electronic dissemination."

These records-management issues have prevented the Office of Thrift Supervision from posting this type of real-time data to its Web site, Teti said.

"Web sites are not a place to archive records material," she said. "It's just too much of a risk."


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