House passes e-records bill

A measure the House passed last week to improve electronic recordkeeping in the federal government is receiving a lukewarm response from advocates of open government.

The Electronic Message Preservation Act would amend both the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act. It would require the National Archives and Records Administration to establish standards for the capture, management and preservation of electronic messages that are presidential records, and it would verify the White House’s compliance.

The House passed the bill 286-137 on the heels of a report from the Government Accountability Office that said senior federal officials were not sufficiently maintaining e-mail messages as records. President Bush has said he would veto the bill.

Although some open-government advocates welcome the measure as a first step, they say it does not go far enough.

Anne Weismann, chief counsel at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), said the bill lacks sufficient teeth to make a real difference. CREW is one of the organizations suing the White House for allegedly losing millions of e-mail messages between 2003 and 2005.

Weismann said she would like to see legislation that puts the requirements directly on the White House, with penalties for noncompliance.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, which assisted CREW with a recent study titled “Record Chaos: The Deplorable State of Electronic Record Keeping in the Federal Government,” said the bill’s passage by a significant majority sent a message. However, it would not require compliance quickly, she added.

“It gives NARA and the agencies overly long periods for meeting the requirements of the bill,” she said. “The recent GAO report clearly indicates the lack of interest governmentwide in ensuring management of electronic documents and messages, and this bill does not change that lack of urgency.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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