A New Era at NARA?

In a recent National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) press release, it was noted that “On December 7, historian Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, submitted his resignation to the
president, effective December 19, 2008. Professor Weinstein, who has Parkinson’s disease, cited health reasons for his decision.”

Allen Weinstein was a leader at NARA for 6 years and will be missed. We wish him well and thank him for his years of public service.

The previously mentioned press release also describes 13 major accomplishments under Weinstein’s leadership at NARA. While each is commendable, I am reminded of three other significant events that occurred during his tenure that shed light on problems with records management in federal agencies and may shift a change in NARA’s future direction.

Before I delve into those three topics, I want to remind readers that the NARA mission statement reads that “NARA serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience.”

The first event I’d like to talk about is related to testimony delivered to Congress in April 2007 by Linda Koontz, Director, Information Management Issues, Government Accountability Office (GAO), entitled “Federal Records ““ Agencies Face Challenges in Managing E-Mail.” In her testimony, Mrs. Koontz clearly described the duties and responsibilities of NARA and the heads of each federal agency in accordance with the Federal Records Act (Chapters 21, 29, 31, and 33). Under the Federal Records Act , each federal agency is required to make and preserve records that:

  1. document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and,
  2. provide the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the government and of persons directly affected by the agency’s activities. NARA has responsibilities for oversight and guidance of federal records management.

Mrs. Koontz’s testimony describes the findings of a GAO Report on the management of emails as records in four government agencies. Highlighted in the testimony are findings that while NARA has issued guidance for the management of email records, the agencies are not complying with the guidance. She states that “8 of the 15 senior officials we reviewed, e-mail messages that qualified as records were not being appropriately identified and preserved.” Taxpayers may conclude that since recordkeeping requirements may not be followed, it cannot be assured that records, including information that is essential to protecting the rights of individuals and the federal government, are being adequately identified and preserved.

The second issue is highlighted in an Associated Press article, titled “White House E-Mail Case Can Proceed.” U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ruled that two private groups may pursue their case as they press the White House to recover millions of possibly missing electronic messages. Kennedy rejected the government’s request to throw out the lawsuits filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive. CREW and the National Security Archive pursued a court order to direct the archivist of the United States to initiate action through the US Attorney General to restore deleted e-mails and initiate legal action under the Federal Records Act. A court order directing the White House to preserve 65,000 computer backup tapes remains in place. The article quotes a former White House computer expert who told Congress “the White House had no complete inventory of e-mail files, that there was no automatic system to ensure that e-mail was archived and preserved, and that until mid-2005 the e-mail system had serious security flaws.”

And the third on my list, H.R. 5811 – the “Electronic Message Preservation Act.” This House Resolution requires the Archivist of the United States to promulgate regulations governing federal agency preservation of electronic to:

  1. require the electronic capture, management, and preservation of such electronic records in accordance with the Federal Records Act;
  2. require such records to be retrievable through electronic searches;
  3. establish mandatory minimum functional requirements for electronic records management systems and a process to certify federal agency compliance with such requirements;
  4. include timelines for federal agency compliance; and
  5. include requirements for the capture, management, and preservation of other electronic records. H.R. 5811 will require the head of each federal agency to report to the Archivist on the agency’s compliance with the Archivist’s regulations and will require the Archivist to report to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on federal agency compliance.

As stated above, NARA has two responsibilities under the Federal Records Act. One is
oversight
and the other is
guidance
. NARA fulfills its guidance responsibility, but, traditionally, NARA has not included oversight in its mission, except where invited by an agency.

I first became involved with records management when I was a First Lieutenant in the US Army. My unit passed an Inspector General inspection in every area except for records. My company clerk, a Specialist 4 (E-4) was responsible for the unit’s records management program. She was the only person in the company who understood anything about records but sadly nobody listened to her. She did not have enough rank and authority to perform her job. Nor did she have the backing of senior management. As the senior lieutenant in the company, I was ordered to get our records in shape. It took an Information Governance inspection and a direct order from the company commander to make us serious about our records management responsibilities. Isn’t that true for most organizations?

Recent reports and articles about the state of records management in government agencies may result in a congressional mandate that will transform NARA from its current “paper tiger” culture to one of enforcement as well. We would welcome such a change. I sincerely hope that as new the administration takes place, including a new Archivist, a change in the enforcement policies at NARA will occur. The public trust in federal records management requires both oversight and guidance. As the reports indicate, without oversight, we cannot be assured that records, information that is essential to protecting the rights of individuals and the federal government, are being adequately identified and preserved.

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