NARA proposes records policy

The National Archives and Records Administration last week proposed a policy for managing the federal government's electronic records that would require agencies to account for their digital documents but would not demand that agencies preserve documents in original formats.

Only agencies that need to keep their files electronically for business— such as audits or dissemination to the public— and have the systems to do so would be expected to retain them. Agencies that do not have electronic recordkeeping systems in place would, at least temporarily, get permission to dispose of the electronic versions of files after creating official paper copies.

The proposed policy, which is substantively similar to an earlier draft circulated among federal agencies last month, makes a distinction between the electronic files in "live'' systems and official "recordkeeping'' copies. The plan addresses what agencies should do with the "source'' documents in their online systems rather than the official files that are maintained for specific periods according to their importance.

Michael Miller, director of modern records programs with NARA, said that in comments on the first draft of the policy, some agencies "felt we were pushing the government to electronic recordkeeping,'' while others said the plan was not forceful enough. "The idea is that in determining what your recordkeeping system is, you need to determine your business needs. We define business needs.''

Response to GRS 20

The proposed policy responds to a court ruling last fall that overturned the government's existing regulations, known as General Records Schedule 20 (GRS 20), which allowed agencies to delete their electronic files as long as they printed out paper copies.

Michael Tankersley, senior staff attorney with Public Citizen, the government-watchdog group that won the court case, said the plan "correctly'' directs agencies to separate important program records from administrative files when deciding what to delete.

Nevertheless, he said, the proposal will not help agencies decide which digital records they should start saving first. "It's a document about how to do the paperwork,'' he said. "It doesn't indicate any recognition of the value judgments that go into making those decisions.''

Without such guidance, Tankersley added, agencies could work on their electronic recordkeeping plans "for years.'' Meanwhile, the government has appealed the original court ruling. In a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals on July 8, the Justice Department argued GRS 20 should stand because the documents in live information systems, which GRS 20 allowed to be deleted, were not valuable in the way the same files would be if they were stored in electronic recordkeeping systems with searching and indexing capabilities. "GRS 20 represents a legally authorized, common-sense solution to the dilemma caused by the rapid development of office automation systems (with finite storage capacity) without the corresponding development of automated recordkeeping systems," DOJ said in the brief.

Other critics of GRS 20 said they worry that the newly proposed policy does not address complaints at the heart of the case, which argued in part that maintaining documents electronically is necessary to facilitate public access to government data.

Patrice McDermott, information policy analyst with public interest advocacy group OMB Watch, said the guidance is "potentially in conflict'' with the Electronic Freedom of Information Act, which says people who request federal information have a right to receive it electronically. McDermott said she had not yet read the proposal but had attended recent meetings of NARA's Electronic Records Work Group where the plan was discussed. "I don't see how the public is going to know how this [information] is organized and how the agency is going to pull it out,'' she said.

NARA's Miller agreed that public access is "a big issue,'' but it is one of several factors agencies would consider when deciding how to proceed with their electronic recordkeeping plans.

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