While Clinton ran private email system, State got high marks for managing records

When assessing records management, it all depends on who you ask.

The State Department was rated as a low-risk agency in terms of records management during the time that Hillary Clinton was secretary, even though Clinton maintained a private email network for her official correspondence.

The disconnect might not be as strange as it sounds.

Since 2009, the National Archives and Records Administration has surveyed records officers from across the government to get a sense of records management practices inside agencies. NARA probes agency policies and training practices in the surveys, but doesn't ask for details about particular problems or specific employees. And when it comes to practices among political appointees, career functionaries can be among the last to know.

"The way the world works is that people at a much removed level from Ms. Clinton's orbit are the ones who typically answer NARA surveys," said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle and formerly director of litigation at NARA.

Former State Department Records Officer Tasha Thian reported in 2009 that the department explained policy on how to manage email sent or received via non-federal accounts, and that high-level executives and political appointees were "routinely trained" on how to manage their email. In 2010, Thian reported that the agency ensured that email federal records are "preserved in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system." FCW obtained the State Department responses to the survey via a Freedom of Information Act request.

As a result of responses to the self-assessment, the Department of State earned the lowest possible risk score of 100 for 2012 and 2013. State scored 94 in 2009, when the overall average score was 76, then dipped to 87 in 2010, before climbing to 92 in 2011. 

In October 2011, a records workshop for executive assistants and staffers in the Office of the Secretary and for other principals drew 27 attendees, according to one edition of the survey. At the same time, documented training and policy communication for senior officials could be accomplished via email.

The 2013 self-assessment reported on records officer plans for the end of Clinton's tenure. "When Secretary Clinton announced her departure, department staff members were briefed on how to retire her records as well as how to handle any requests made by departing officials for personal papers and non-record matter," per the document. If it was learned by anyone at the records management level that Clinton maintained custody of her email on a personal server, that information was not included in reports to NARA.

The State Department did not comment on whether the records management officer was aware of Clinton's email practices. At the time, there was no law or regulation preventing a State Department official from using a personal system.

"We rarely have knowledge about detailed recordkeeping practices of individual employees,” NARA said in an unsigned statement released June 5, in response to inquiries about the Clinton email story. “Each agency is responsible for implementing a records management program and providing the guidance and training to individual employees. Agencies may have very good records management programs in place, but could still have weaknesses at the individual employee level."

While Baron said that individuals in the records management program were not responsible for any failure to detect and remedy the exclusive use of private email by Clinton, he does think that as an institution the State Department failed.

"It is apparent to me that somebody who is in charge of document review, for either FOIA purposes or congressional inquiries or gathering documents for whatever external demands like litigation should have been aware, if they repeatedly came into contact with email addresses that were not dot-gov addresses, that this represented an anomaly, worthy of respectful further inquiry up the line," Baron told FCW.

Attention from the media, congressional overseers and government watchdog groups is generating activity around records management, said Paul Wester, the chief records officer for the U.S. government at NARA.

"It's giving records officers and senior agency officials the opportunity to have conversations with people they were never having conversations with regarding these issues," Wester told FCW. "It's putting stress on people to do better, which is a good thing, but they are stressed."

Government agencies are facing a key deadline -- a presidential directive to manage email in electronic form for the purposes of record keeping by the end of 2016. NARA has developed a guidance dubbed Capstone designed to take some of the human activity out of record keeping, and attach record keeping requirements to certain high-level jobs and key functions.

"The entire policy is set up on the premise that it's very difficult for individual agency employees to do a great job of record keeping because people are busy and aren't perfect," Baron said. The volume and velocity of email is too great for people to manage, he observed.

"I worked for the government for 33 years. I can tell you that it was the rare individual who followed the record-keeping rules to the letter, because the rules are burdensome to apply given the state of technology in the government," Baron said.

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