Panel would reform records storage

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have introduced legislation that would revamp the Presidential Records and Federal Records acts to address how the White House and federal agencies maintain electronic communications, including e-mail messages.

The legislation, introduced April 15, would establish an expanded role for the National Archives and Records Administration in federal electronic recordkeeping. The measure would require NARA to establish standards for how agencies covered by the Federal Records Act capture, manage, preserve and retrieve electronic communications.

The legislation would also require the White House to meet a similar standard determined by NARA and would subject presidential recordkeeping practices to the agency's approval. Under the current system, NARA has little control over how White House staff members store and prepare their records to be handed over at the end of an administration.

“Too often over the past several years, our investigations have revealed weaknesses in government preservation of e-mail that could leave substantial gaps as future historians examine White House and agency decision-making,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee's chairman and one of the bill’s sponsors, in announcing the legislation.
In a related development, preliminary findings from the Government Accountability Office released today summarized a survey of recordkeeping processes at four agencies. Although the agencies generally met NARA's statutory requirements, its policies were not always followed, GAO auditors said.

“The loss of documents and information through indifference should be viewed with as much alarm as their loss through a system breach,” said Patrice McDermott, director of, in her opening statement for a hearing set for today by a subcommittee that deals with federal information policies and issues. After a series of votes delayed lawmakers, the session was postponed indefinitely.

Little progress has been made in electronic records management across the federal government, McDermott said, and “we repeatedly have to relearn the lesson, apparently, that servers and backup tapes are not appropriate records management systems.”

In the past year, the Executive Office of the President has been the subject of congressional investigations and two lawsuits over the alleged loss of millions of e-mail messages as a result of the Bush administration’s lack of an automated electronic records management system.

One of the organizations suing the White House, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), released a report today that says the federal government has fallen “woefully behind its private-sector counterparts, and the National Archives and Records Administration has failed to affirmatively assist agencies in developing and implementing records management policies as the Federal Records Act requires.”

The report resulted from requests to various agencies under the Freedom of Information Act to produce e-mail messages and an online survey of 400 agency records managers that found “an appalling lack of progress in moving toward electronic recordkeeping.” The organizations also reported confusion among managers about agency policies; the most common method of e-mail management was to print the messages and store them.

McDermott said only a handful of the agencies surveyed exclusively used electronic methods to store e-mail messages, and a majority of the agencies surveyed that used paper or another system found it difficult or impossible to search for specific messages. She said that although the proposed legislation was a welcome development, its proposed deadline of four years for agencies to implement the program was unnecessarily long.

“This is an issue that has been under discussion for more than 10 years,” she said. “What are needed are some enforceable repercussions for failure to meet obligations under the Federal Records Act.”

Anne Weismann, chief counsel at CREW, agreed that the legislation lacked sufficient teeth and called for more explicit consequences for not complying with federal and presidential records laws.

Anna Nelson, scheduled to represent the National Coalition for History, said in her statement that the administration’s failure to preserve electronic records stemmed from a belief that such records don’t count. Her organization includes the country’s largest historical and archival associations.

“Although not a perfect solution, this legislation, which requires records management controls of electronic records and gives [NARA] the ability to monitor the implementation of the controls, will substantively correct that assumption,” she said.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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