NARA floats electronic records plan

According to a new draft policy distributed throughout the government last month by the National Archives and Records Administration, agencies should decide whether to keep their electronic records based on their need for the documents, a policy similar to how agencies now make decisions about retaining or destroying paper files.

According to NARA's proposal, agencies' "business needs," including "staff and public reference use," should determine how long agencies keep e-mail, word processing documents and spreadsheet files. The plan, designed to last two years, would temporarily replace General Records Schedule 20, which allowed agencies to delete electronic files after officials printed out paper copies.

Under the draft policy, agencies might continue that practice with at least some of their records, but NARA would have to review those plans and allow the public to comment. NARA's proposal largely adopts recommendations by the interagency Electronic Records Work Group, which was convened last year to write a new electronic recordkeeping policy after a federal judge ruled that GRS 20 was invalid.

The government is appealing that ruling. On Oct. 20, the Justice Department told the U.S. Court of Appeals that agencies cannot currently maintain their records electronically and that no significant information was being lost when the digital documents were destroyed.

Plaintiffs in the case, Public Citizen v. Carlin, contend that in some cases, such as the electronic correspondence among high-level officials, maintaining the structure and format of the original electronic files is necessary to reconstruct what an agency did.

Although NARA characterized the proposal as "a first step" toward solving agencies' electronic records problems, Richard Barry, a consultant who advised the Electronic Records Work Group, said he does not think NARA's proposal is suitable for agencies, which are increasingly relying on electronic documents to conduct business.

"NARA appears to favor paper recordkeeping as the default condition even into the future'' because the scheduling guidelines do not acknowledge that electronic records may be created as part of automated business processes, Barry said.

In addition, he said, it is hard for agencies to guess what the future reference value of their records will be. Deciding what to save based on "the importance of records— in terms of human rights, agency mission criticality [and] their potential [to be part of litigation]"— would be better "guiding principles," Barry said.

FCW sought comment from officials in several agencies last week, but officials said either that they had not had a chance to read the document or else would not comment until they had prepared their official response.

A ruling by the appeals court is due within the next few months. Meanwhile, agencies have until Nov. 19 to comment on the draft before NARA crafts its final policy. Nancy Allard, an archive specialist who is fielding questions about the proposal, said the agency hopes to issue a final policy, in the form of a bulletin, shortly thereafter.

She said NARA could seek public input on the policy, depending on the types of comments it gets from the government. However, she added, her agency does not usually seek public comment on temporary policy bulletins. She would not answer questions about any aspects of the proposal because, she said, "it is not out for public discussion at this point."

The draft would require agencies to submit within six months new records schedules that include electronic records. Records schedules are catalogs of files, along with instructions for how long to keep them. Agencies unable to accomplish this would have to submit a plan for doing this work within two years. In the meantime, they could continue their current recordkeeping practices, including printing and then deleting digital files.

The proposal offers agencies two models for organizing their files: incorporating instructions for maintaining electronic records into existing content-based schedules, such as speeches or directives; or by component, such as an agency's regulatory affairs office. The draft "strongly recommend[s]" the first option "because it is consistent with other scheduling practices and is the easiest to explain to staff."

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