Time for an answer

Last week a federal judge ruled the National Archives and Records Administration could have more time to come up with rules for agencies to follow when deciding which electronic documents they should keep and which ones they can delete. We believe NARA has had long enough.

NARA has been working on these guidelines since shortly after Judge Paul Friedman last October knocked down a 1995 rule that allowed agencies to delete electronic files if they first printed out hard copies.

Public interest groups and historians who sued NARA over the rule argued that important data embedded in electronic documents is not captured in printed copies and therefore should be electronically preserved. In April, Friedman enforced his ruling at the plaintiffs' request, giving NARA until Sept. 30 to devise a new plan for how agencies should manage legally and historically important digital files.

But last month NARA asked for a reprieve, arguing that it could not meet the deadline because the Year 2000 computer problem was draining information technology resources.

Friedman agreed and gave NARA what amounts to an indefinite extension. Even if weeks or months from now the Court of Appeals reverses Friedman's original ruling, it will not change the fact that millions of electronic records are being created daily with no plans for preserving them.

The real losers here are the American people, who are being deprived of documents that shed light on how their government made decisions.

The value of these records can be enormous for federal employees as well. For example, FCW reported last year that digital files created during the 1991 Persian Gulf War could have helped Congress establish the cause of Gulf War Syndrome, but the files had long since been destroyed.

Agencies are caught in the middle of this mess as they try to decide what to do with the gargantuan number of e-mails, electronic memos, digital reports and World Wide Web-based publications generated daily. There is no doubt that the Year 2000 computer bug is sapping IT resources. But the federal government has taken on big challenges before.

NARA already has agreed that agencies need a short-term solution. A good first step may be for NARA to finish its review of the Defense Department's standards for managing electronic records and decide if they are applicable governmentwide. If so, there are commercial products that meet those standards which agencies may be able to use.

We don't presume to know the answer, but we do presume it is time to have one.

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