NARA wants agencies to buy records systems

The National Archives and Records Administration plans to recommend that agencies buy electronic recordkeeping systems as part of a new policy detailing how the government should maintain digital documents.

Michael Miller, director of the Modern Records Management Program at NARA, said officials decided to include this recommendation in the upcoming guidelines because they realized that other short-term options NARA was considering would "take almost as long'' for agencies to put in place.

A working group on electronic records is weighing new rules for preserving or disposing of the government's digital files following a court decision last fall that said the existing policy, which let agencies delete e-mail and word processing documents if they kept paper copies, was illegal. The decision is being appealed, but NARA is under a court order to replace this rule, known as General Records Schedule (GRS) 20, by Sept. 30.

Agencies that follow the guidelines "won't need the paper backup any more because the electronic system does it,'' Miller said. Among possible technical solutions, Miller said, agencies could build recordkeeping software into a document management or workflow application that they use to support their regular operations, or they could buy a stand-alone package, although NARA will not suggest specific solutions.

"It's not going to be the option that the vast majority of federal agencies will take immediately,'' Miller said, because they may not be able to afford it. "You have to look at your business needs and what you really need to control. There are no simple solutions or quick fixes that people can put in and solve their problem in six months.''

Federal records officers and information technology managers have often complained that they have not had usable guidance from NARA as to what an electronic recordkeeping system should be able to do and how such a system could be integrated into their operations.

"I don't see them talking about how to integrate records management with the regular business process,'' said Rich Kellett, division director for emerging IT applications at the General Services Administration. "No matter what a judge wants us to do or what Congress wants us to do, we have so much [information] right now [that] it can't all be stored.''

Judy Boley, federal records officer at the Federal Communications Commission, said she would like to see guidance on the methods of submitting various types of electronic documents to NARA. Also, she said a recommendation of a universal software product for records disposition would be helpful.

"We don't have a lot of the resources that the larger agencies do," Boley said. "Any tool [for electronic recordkeeping]...would be appreciated."

Another federal records officer, who asked not to be named, said NARA should formally endorse the electronic recordkeeping systems standard that the Defense Department has designed so that agencies would have guidance when purchasing these systems.

NARA also should provide guidance detailing which fields of information contained in electronic documents need to be maintained by agencies, and NARA should explicitly lay out what types of electronic documents they will require agencies to provide for archiving, according to the officer.

Michael Tankersley, senior staff attorney with Public Citizen, a government watchdog group that challenged GRS 20 in court, said guidelines for electronic recordkeeping systems are needed, but NARA also needs to tell agencies which types of records are most important for them to maintain in electronic form.

"There's no guidance coming from the Archives saying these are the priority categories [or] that say when these get appraised, they're likely to get approved to be preserved in electronic form,'' Tankersley said. "Given that agencies are going to have to make resource allocation decisions about in which systems they are prepared to manage materials electronically, that policy doesn't tell agencies about how [to] decide [whether to] invest in making this [particular] system an electronic recordkeeping system.''

Miller agreed that in the past NARA focused more on preserving records for historical purposes, but he said now officials recognize that they need to link records-management policies more closely to how agencies use those records on a day-to-day basis.

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