E-records reform bill faces resistance

The National Archives and Records Administration hasn't been sufficiently overseeing agencies’ records management programs, according to government auditors. Meanwhile, a bill that would revamp federal records laws to focus on electronic messages and expand NARA’s oversight powers faces resistance from the Bush administration.

The House is expected on July 9 to consider legislation that would create mandatory minimum requirements for electronic records management systems to be used by federal agencies and require agencies to preserve electronic communications in an electronic format. The measure would also have NARA set standards for the management of presidential records, including specific standards for managing electronic messages.

“This bill will reform this administration’s shoddy recordkeeping and allow the American people to have confidence that future administrations will not be able to hide the truth from them or from history,” Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.) said today.

However, in a statement today, the administration said current record preservation laws were sufficient and that if Congress approved the bill, the measure would likely face a veto.

“The bill would amend the Presidential Records Act (PRA) in fundamental ways that would upset the delicate separation of powers balance that Congress established in 1978 and require the Archivist to intrude, in an excessive and inappropriate manner, into the activities of an incumbent president and his or her staff,” the statement reads.

The administration said it had “serious concerns” about portions of the bill that would reform the federal records act because the language was vague and it would be expensive for agencies to comply.

Over 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.

Historians and open government advocates have been leading the charge for reform in federal and presidential recordkeeping practices, and some have said the legislation does not go far enough.

In a related development, the three Democrats who sponsored the bill released a report from the Government Accountability Office that said NARA needs to improve its oversight of agency records management practices and again begin conducting inspections on agencies’ record management practices — something  NARA has not done since 2000.

NARA has implemented a “targeted assistance” approach based on cooperating with agencies, which auditors said was not an adequate replacement for the inspections. GAO said NARA has also not provided sufficient details in reports to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.

“Without more comprehensive evaluations of agency records management, NARA has limited assurance that agencies are appropriately managing the records in their custody and that important records are not lost,” GAO said.

The GAO report also said four agencies that auditors examined were generally printing electronic communications and filing them, rather than storing them electronically. In addition, the auditors found that agency guidance regarding electronic records was incomplete and that e-mail messages that qualified as records were not being appropriately identified and preserved for eight of the 15 senior officials GAO examined.

GAO recommended that NARA improve its oversight program to include:

  • Various types of inspections and surveys, and criteria for ensuring they are regularly performed.

  • Reporting to Congress and OMB on the findings and agency responses to its oversight activities, as required by law.

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.


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