NARA allows deletion of housekeeping files

The National Archives and Records Administration said last month that agencies can delete extra electronic copies of routine housekeeping records provided they have created an official "recordkeeping copy.''

A new policy, distributed to federal records officers Dec. 29, revises NARA's General Records Schedules, which direct agencies as to how long they must keep accounting, payroll, procurement, travel and other administrative records. According to the policy, once agencies have produced official copies of their records, either in electronic or paper form, they should delete any remaining copies within six months.

Such copies include files on employees' personal hard drives, in e-mail directories or on network drives.

If agencies have copies of these files that they maintain for dissemination or to make future revisions, they can delete these when the information is distributed or when updates are completed.

Michael Tankersley, senior staff attorney with Public Citizen, which has sued the government to force agencies to account for their electronic records, said these instructions "can make sense'' because the documents they cover "are records of relatively transitory value.'' In many cases, even the official copies are kept for only a few months to a few years.

The new rules make it clear that agencies can routinely dispose of electronic housekeeping files. This concept has been in doubt since a federal judge ruled 15 months ago in Public Citizen v. Carlin that NARA's former policy, known as General Records Schedule 20, was illegal. GRS 20 said agencies could delete any e-mail, word processing and spreadsheet files if they printed out paper copies, but it did not distinguish between housekeeping records and files pertaining to agencies' missions.

The government is appealing the decision, but has, meanwhile, been developing new rules for agencies to manage their digital files. Still to come are regulations for managing agency program files and records relating to information systems operations.

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