Making the most of agency email scandals
- By Adam Mazmanian
- Jul 16, 2015
NARA Chief Records Officer Paul Wester
Even by the admission of the nation's top federal records officer, many of the issues related to government records management are mundane.
"It's like the lights," said Paul Wester, a longtime senior executive at the National Archives and Records Administration who has served as the nation's first chief records officer since 2011. "They come on, they go off. You press the button, it all works. People expect records to be like that."
When they're not like that -- when, say, a high-profile former secretary of State is revealed to have conducted the entirety of her official email correspondence via a private system or when the IRS can't locate the email archive of an official in hot water with congressional Republicans over a political scandal -- it's Wester who gets irate calls from Capitol Hill.
In the summer of 2014, when the IRS email story was at a fever pitch, Wester told a gathering of government records officers, "If you don't want to have to stand before Congressman Issa with your hand raised, touching the chin of God, get your email under control."
Now, Wester is getting ready to make his annual speech to agency records officers at the Digital Government Institute's Records Management Conference on Aug. 26. Although the irascible Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is no longer chairman and chief antagonist on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, government's electronic recordkeeping remains very much in the news, thanks to the Hillary Clinton email story.
For Wester, these situations provide more than just a chance to journey to Capitol Hill and sit in the hot seat for a few hours. He's on the front lines of a governmentwide effort to corral electronic records -- first email and then any electronically produced material -- into more manageable and enduring shape.
Although Wester said he doesn't concern himself with the political overtones of the records stories, he does find that when email is in the news, it can be something of a teachable moment.
"It's giving records officers and senior agency officials the opportunity to have conversations with people they were never having conversations about regarding these issues," Wester told FCW in an interview at NARA's Washington, D.C., headquarters.
Not an enforcement agency
One of the big misconceptions about government records management is that there is a central authority with the ability to sanction individuals or departments that are not living up to their charge as custodians of government information.
"There's a lot of expectation that we are an enforcement agency when we really aren't," Wester said. "Our focus is really on how can we help agencies manage their records the best that they can so that they can meet their business needs, protect their rights and interests [of] the government and the citizens, and get to the national archives their permanently valuable records at some point in the future so that we can make them available [for] a future generation."
When records have been destroyed or removed, NARA can refer individual cases to the Justice Department, but in general, it doesn't have much leverage over particular agency programs. The results of its annual Records Management Self-Assessment give oversight bodies and lawmakers a look at how agencies are doing, and NARA also conducts inspections by going into agencies and examining how their records management programs work.
And increasingly, Wester is trying to bring agency inspectors general into the records conversation.
"I think the IG community is interested in thinking about how important records are, particularly for the audit kinds of functions, and what's the nexus between our responsibilities and what they're trying to do in the IG community," Wester said. He wants federal employees to know that records management "is an area where you can go to your IG and ask questions and have them look into things."
New law, new penalties
Wester is also involved in the implementation of updates to the Federal Records Act. One key provision requires feds who use personal email for government business to move those messages into an official account within 20 days or face consequences, except in exceptional circumstances.
"That's a fundamentally different issue with penalties and things that had not been in place before," Wester said, adding that the specificity of the new law will encourage conversations between records officers and senior officials that might not have happened otherwise.
"Now that there are penalties for a particular piece of your not managing your records effectively, there's a better way to have that conversation now," Wester said. "'If you do not do this, this is what could happen to you.' That makes it much more concrete than it may have been in the past."
Right now, Wester said, he plans to leave it to each agency to define the exceptions to the 20-day rule.
A looming deadline
Under a presidential directive, agencies must manage all their email records in electronic format by the end of 2016. That means no more printing messages and filing them. NARA is starting to have conversations with designated senior agency officials -- executives with enough clout to take records issues into the C-suite -- about how well they're doing to meet the 2016 deadline.
"It would be surprising to me if every single person met the deadline and every single agency met the deadline by 2016," Wester said. "What I can say is that all of the agencies are making progress toward meeting it."
NARA has recommended that agencies adopt a policy dubbed Capstone that involves designating certain agency email accounts, whether by virtue of rank or function, as likely to generate permanent records and then setting those accounts for automatic archiving.
"We've taken a policy approach that we think matches up well with how technology has evolved and allows agencies more flexibility and greater ability to be able to capture that permanently valuable email, segregate it [and] get it to the archives when it needs to be gotten to us for permanent preservation," Wester said.
NARA is also preparing for the impending change in administration. Wester said officials are getting ready to "dust off plans" for what agencies need to do as the Obama administration winds down. He has worked at NARA since 1990 and has been through a few presidential transitions.
"They're mundane if they all work right," Wester said, adding that the goal is "having the conversations early, getting our literature out and guidance products out early so that agencies understand what their obligations are with those kinds of folks. Making sure things move effectively and easily is something we're interested in doing better."
Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.
Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy, health IT and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mr. Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian started his career as an arts reporter and critic, and has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, Architect magazine, and other publications. He was an editorial assistant and staff writer at the now-defunct New York Press and arts editor at the About.com online network in the 1990s, and was a weekly contributor of music and film reviews to the Washington Times from 2007 to 2014.
Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.