NARA circulates draft records management plan

The National Archives and Records Administration has begun to circulate a plan for managing the government's digital documents, but the plan lacks a clear policy that information technology managers and records management experts deem critical to solving their recordkeeping problems.

A draft policy developed by a NARA task force would give agencies until early next year to devise a plan for maintaining, preserving or disposing of their e-mail and word proc-essing files or come up with a timetable to do so.

But NARA has yet to offer guidance on long-term electronic recordkeeping needs. "We're thinking about how this would be implemented," said Michael Miller, director of modern records programs at NARA and head of the task force.

A new committee will be convened to devise guidelines for systems that agencies could start buying with fiscal 2000 budgets. "That is the earliest they are going to be doing any purchasing," he said.

The proposed policy, which has been circulating governmentwide for the past two weeks, focuses on how agencies will manage files collecting in "live"e-mail, word processing and other office automation applications, but it does not address whether the digital files— or paper copies of them— will be considered agencies' official records.

The policy is a result of an 8-month-old court order that federal agencies stop destroying all e-mail and word proc-essing files and instead distinguish between documents pertaining to agency programs and those that concern routine administrative matters. According to the draft, whether agencies could destroy files stored online would depend on their content and on agencies' ability to keep them.

Agencies temporarily would be given more flexibility to trash electronic records if they do not have the technological capability to store them for long periods and if they do not need the records to conduct business or use them for reference. To maintain their digital files as NARA would require, the proposal says agencies would need to have some ability to sort their online records, dispose of them at appropriate times and allow the documents to be searched.

Agencies would be allowed to delete live versions of administrative records— defined as records common to all federal agencies that do not directly relate to the agencies' "core missions"— as long as the agencies keep some type of official copy. The policy would also establish set periods for keeping records about computer systems operations (see story, Page 9).

Page Putnam Miller, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, said the proposal makes the needed distinction between mission-

related records and housekeeping files. However, "I'm still worried that it gives agencies too much of an out and doesn't hold their feet to the fire," she said. "If you haven't developed the [electronic recordkeeping system], you can't really do what they're asking them to do."

Richard Kellett, director of the General Services Administration Emerging Policies Division, said, however, NARA acknowledges "there are limitations in technology right now."

But Kellett said, "I would have liked to see more language about where the technology is to give agencies...guidance about what they can expect as they develop their plans.''

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