4 reasons e-records are still a mess

The federal government’s struggle to preserve official e-mail messages and other digital records is likely to continue during the Obama administration.

If you are a federal employee – whether in the White House or in the deepest recesses of the federal bureaucracy – you are contributing to a mounting electronic records problem every time you hit the SEND button.

Questions for content managers

In guidance issued in 2006, the National Archives and Records Administration offered the following questions as examples of what content managers must consider when managing Web-based records.

1. Does the interactive nature of the Web applications affect the management of their content?
2. Does the fact that these applications might reuse content from other sources have any effect on the ability to effectively manage the records?
3. What are the management implications resulting from the frequent updating of content on applications such as blogs and wikis?
4. How does an agency ensure the trustworthiness of information maintained in those applications?

Source: NARA

And less than two months into the nascent administration of Barack Obama, it’s already clear that the  federal government’s struggle to preserve official e-mail messages and other digital records is likely to continue.

The policies for handling official e-mail messages remain murky despite several years of efforts to strengthen them. How to handle, sort and store e-mail messages varies from agency to agency, and even those agencies that have developed policies for official “dot.gov” accounts have yet to nail down requirements for personal e-mail accounts used for official business.What’s more, e-mail is now only part of the digital conundrum, which now includes wikis and other Web 2.0 social networkiung tools.

The Obama administration yet to address the growing concerns about electronic records even though the president has made transparency in government a central tenet of his young presidency.

“E-mails are definitely a problem,” said Susan Cummings, deputy director of the modern records program at the National Archives and Records Administration. “We are still grappling with how to define best practices for handling them.”

The Federal Records Act of 1950 and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 are the laws that primarily govern the treatment of official records. The laws were written before electronic communications became prominent, so they don’t address messages created in e-mail, instant messaging, wikis, blogs or other digital formats.

There are four key problems that make electronic records more difficult to cope with than paper documents:

Problem #1: Lack of information

NARA has recently finished a study to determine what agencies are doing to preserve official e-mail messages, and the agency will release the findings in several weeks, Cummings said. The goal is to develop electronic means of sorting, storing and maintaining searchable e-mail records, she said. But the Obama administration has not yet chosen a new national archivist, and that person will have significant influence over those activities.

Agencies and NARA are responsible for maintaining federal records. NARA has not assessed agency practices on a regular basis, but that will change in fiscal 2010, Cummings said. Without knowing what agencies are already doing, in detail, it’s difficult to move forward with new policies that will make processes more consistent.

But unless Obama appoints a particularly vibrant leader, NARA’s efforts won’t bridge the gap, said J. Timothy Sprehe, a management consultant. NARA is responsible only for the records that agencies transfer to it for permanent safekeeping. The national archivist will need to understand how agencies determine which documents to discard and which ones to send to the archives in order to oversee truly effective changes, according to Sprehe.

Problem #2: Personal e-mail accounts

When federal employees use agency e-mail systems to communicate, it can be relatively easy to find and analyze messages to determine which qualify as government records. However, personal e-mail accounts add a layer of complexity. If an employee conducts official business using a personal e-mail account, the message counts as a record covered under the laws. But unless the employee recognizes that and makes it available, agency officials might never be aware of it.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), senior Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote to the Obama administration on Feb. 19 to express concerns about senior staff members’ alleged use of Google’s Web-based Gmail service and other personal e-mail accounts. If official business is being conducted via such accounts, those records would fall under the authority of the Presidential Records Act, Issa said.

“The use of personal e-mail accounts, such as Gmail, to conduct official business raises the prospect that presidential records will not be captured by the White House e-mail archiving system,” Issa wrote.

The administration did not respond to several requests for comment. If Obama’s staff used Gmail to conduct business before the inauguration, the Presidential Records Act would not cover those activities.

In addition, the litigation over the George W. Bush administration’s alleged failure to archive millions of e-mail messages has carried over into the new administration. The Justice Department filed a motion the day after the inauguration asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and George Washington University’s National Security Archive initiated the litigation in 2007. They claim the Bush administration violated the Federal Records Act by failing to preserve about 5 million e-mail records dating from 2003. The groups want the court to compel the restoration of Bush’s missing e-mail messages and establish an adequate electronic records management system.

“These are problems that Obama has inherited,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel at CREW. “The question is: What will he do? We do not know yet.”

Problem #3: The rest of the digital world

E-mail messages are hardly the only kind of electronic records that policy-makers must address. Information posted on social-networking sites, wikis and other Web 2.0 tools could also potentially count as government records.

It is a growing challenge for federal records managers, Cummings said. NARA provided guidance to agencies in those areas in 2006, and agency directors will provide updates on their practices at a NARA conference in May.

The guidance notes that online content can change rapidly. A wiki article might be edited several times, and blog authors can change or delete entries. Furthermore, the accuracy of the content can vary, and the ownership of the data is not always clear. When an agency hosts a site and develops the content, ownership is obvious. In some cases, however, an agency might agree to host a site on behalf of another agency, which creates the information.

As Obama continues to emphasize the use of Web 2.0 tools, the records management questions and larger policy issues will grow more urgent.

Problem #4: What to do with the data

Agencies that store paper copies of e-mail messages undermine the purpose of going paperless, but it’s far from clear what agencies should do with electronic messages, said Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“There has been no emphasis on e-mail storage in funding or policy,” he said. “It has not been a priority.”

Schwartz and others are hopeful that the situation can be improved, given appropriate attention and funding. A key turning point could be the appointment of NARA’s new director.

“It is both a technology and resource issue,” Schwartz said. “It is still early, and we will have to see if the new national archivist will take this on.”

One option that could improve e-mail record preservation is outsourcing the task to firms that specialize in data storage and retrieval, although privacy and security issues would have to be addressed, Schwartz said.

Another possible solution is to store nearly all e-mail messages, which would eliminate the need to sort through them and determine which ones qualify as official records.

“Basically, you save everything,” said Michael Daconta, an information management consultant.

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