NARA guides agencies in digital file disposal

The National Archives and Records Administration told agencies last week that they should make specific plans to preserve or dispose of important electronic records, but plaintiffs who are challenging federal recordkeeping practices in court said the new policy will not protect key digital files.

According to a policy issued March 10, agencies now have to report when they have electronic versions of documents and tell NARA whether they plan to preserve or destroy those documents. Agencies still can designate paper copies as the records stored in their official files, but Deputy Archivist Lewis Bellardo said the new policy would enable his agency to decide whether the electronic versions should be maintained as well.

These instructions are the first official guidelines that NARA has provided agencies since October, when a U.S. District Court judge overturned General Records Schedule (GRS) 20, a regulation that let agencies destroy e-mail and word processing files if they had paper copies. The new rules are valid for the next seven months, while the government appeals the court ruling and a NARA-led working group devises a permanent policy for electronic recordkeeping.

Agencies "will be scheduling [records] in a way that hasn't been done before,'' Bellardo said. "Next week, that doesn't mean suddenly everyone is keeping all their records electronically, but there will be the opportunity for us to appraise [them] at a level that we haven't done up until now.''

Scheduling records means putting them in categories according to type, such as correspondence or case files, along with instructions for how long to keep them. NARA reviews and approves these plans, taking public comments into account.

But Michael Tankersley, staff attorney for Public Citizen, the advocacy group that won the initial ruling, said he sees no difference between the new policy and the old one. Because the temporary rules do not cover the systems in which the records are kept, agencies will still be free to destroy the information in them, he said.

"Agencies don't schedule individual documents,'' he said, "They schedule a system, and if they have a schedule for paper files, what this says is, 'You're covered.' "

Daniel Rooney, records management officer with the Commerce Department, said that as a practical matter, agencies will end up putting "down in writing'' that they will destroy their electronic records.

The temporary policy is a "stopgap,'' Rooney said. "What they are doing is training people'' to start paying attention to their electronic files.

According to the policy, agencies must schedule "records generated on office automation applications,'' including e-mail, word processing files, automated calendars, spreadsheets and related applications.

Bellardo said there may be different retention periods for records in "live'' systems, for records in "electronic recordkeeping systems'' designed for maintaining digital records and for paper files.

The policy applies only to new or revised records schedules and would not change any plans agencies have already made to get rid of electronic files under the original GRS 20 policy. The instructions also advise agencies that, according to the Justice Department, they can still follow GRS 20 until the appeals process is completed.

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