GAO to study electronic recordkeeping

Concerned that the government's recordkeeping rules may be outmoded, the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee this summer asked the General Accounting Office to study how information technology affects records management.

In a letter sent to GAO in mid-July, Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who heads the committee, wrote, "current developments in the use of computer technology are challenging traditional notions about records management," including the extent to which e-mail and backup tapes are public records and how to archive digital records.

A committee aide, who requested anonymity, said the purpose of the study is to define the problem and focus on aspects of it that deserve attention.

Although the aide said the committee has not developed a specific agenda to look into the issue, the report eventually could be used as the basis for oversight hearings or legislation and to assess the costs of electronic recordkeeping.

But some experts that follow federal records policies believe current recordkeeping rules, crafted before federal employees had PCs and e-mail, should be reinterpreted, if not rewritten.

"Certainly the implementation of the law has been a serious problem," said Frank Reeder, a consultant and former head of the Office of Management and Budget's information policy and technology branch.

Reeder is researching problems with public access to government information for watchdog group OMB Watch. "I'm not prepared to reach a conclusion yet, but it seems there are deficiencies in this whole area of what constitutes a record and creating what librarians call 'appropriate finder aids,' " he said.

The government is appealing a court decision that said current federal records laws must require agencies to preserve electronic records in their digital formats rather than printing the records. Meanwhile, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is working on a new policy for agencies "scheduling," or deciding how long to keep, these files.

Page Putnam Miller, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, said a GAO report would help to highlight what agencies need to do to comply with the statute. "I think the current law spells out pretty specifically the kind of records that need to be saved regardless of format," she said. "Our concern has been that those principles weren't being applied to electronic records, but the basis for applying them is already in the law."

Several federal laws and policies outline agencies' responsibilities for keeping track of the documents that chronicle their activities. Because many government duties are now performed using electronic correspondence, historians and researchers want to ensure those records are kept for future research.

Scott Armstrong, one of the plaintiffs in Public Citizen v. Carlin— the case now under appeal in which the plaintiffs suggest electronic records may contain information that is unique and may be lost if not preserved on paper— said he thinks several legal changes are needed to ensure that agencies preserve their electronic records. Armstrong suggested that NARA define more specifically which categories of records are important to preserve rather than leave it up to agencies to determine what best describes their activities.

"You start with certain assumptions that information created at the top is of permanent retention value," he said, such as all correspondence between agencies and the White House or any exchanges between the State Department and the CIA. "You can index them electronically; it's not nearly as odious as it would have once been," Armstrong said.

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