Overturn of e-records decision no reason to let up

Judge Douglas Ginsburg of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia overturned the Public Citizen v. Carlin decision that would have disallowed agencies from destroying electronic records without guidance from the National Archives and Records Administration, even when paper copies were kept. Judge Ginsburg's decision could become a win-win situation.

Public Citizen wins because it has helped elevate government and public attention to a subject of vital importance. The most definitive work on electronic records by NARA after its August 1995 publication of the policy that let agencies delete electronic records as long as they preserved paper copies - known as General Records Schedule 20 - took place after the initiation of Public Citizen v. Carlin in December 1996.

Feds win, too. NARA has beefed up its staff's skills, addressed issues earlier than it might have (although NARA may disagree) and sharpened its thinking since Judge Paul Friedman struck down GRS 20, which Ginsburg reversed. NARA formed the Electronic Records Work Group and worked on business process re-engineering for its functions. The agencies learned a lot too.

It would be unfortunate if NARA took the Ginsburg decision as a reason to retrench from ERWG recommendations rather than continuing toward a reasoned approach to the planning and implementation of electronic records solutions in the federal government. As National Archivist John Carlin said in his ERWG report acceptance and transmittal letter: "There is no option to finding answers, however, because the alternative is irretrievable information, unverifiable documentation, diminished government accountability and lost history."

To this end, the government must start to put funds diverted to fix the Year 2000 problem into an "electronic records dividend." But, as with most government agencies, at NARA there are long lines between the helm and the rudder.

It also would be unfortunate if agencies saw Ginsburg's decision as a means for back-pressuring NARA, perpetuating a paper-based solution, significantly deferring implementation of electronic records management systems and presenting NARA with a "57 varieties" nonstandard approach.

Although paper files of key records should be maintained until after the threat of Year 2000 problems subsides, paper-based recordkeeping is not a viable long-term approach because storage and maintenance costs are high, and NARA's key "ready access" aim will be better facilitated with electronic systems. Even security for electronic systems is becoming better than for paper systems.

Persuading authors to make paper file copies of records such as informal e-mail is not easy. The author's vested interests, understanding what is and is not a record and willingness to comply affects whether the document is printed. Capturing certain data in a recordkeeping system will be problematic for records with printable embedded metadata - written word processing annotations and spreadsheet formulas. But it will be even more of a problem for contextual information in e-mail, voice annotation, workflow, enterprise planning and other digital systems that users may not be able to capture in print versions. Good law might not have very practical human factors.

Let's not let legal outcomes unnecessarily change good policy-making. Policy within the law, even if not mandated by Ginsburg's ruling, may still be good policy. Don't let up.

-- Barry, principal of Barry Associates, Arlington, Va., was chief of information services at the World Bank, where he led the integration of the World Bank's archives and records management functions. He has worked as a consultant for several national archivists and was a consultant to the Electronic Records Work Group established by the Archivist of the United States.

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