@Info Policy: NARA makes another half-hearted attempt at policy

Robert Gellman

The National Archives and Records Administration wants to redesign federal records management. What's in it for the records managers and IT folks trying to figure out how to deal with preservation issues? I'll come back to that question in a minute, but don't set your hopes too high.

NARA has been working for some time to figure out how to function in the electronic age. For well over a decade, the agency has dropped the ball in advising agencies how to manage the current and future flood of electronic records.

NARA commissioned a report from SRA International Inc. of Arlington, Va., to learn more about federal employees' perceptions of record-keeping. SRA found that agencies need help handling the records. No great surprise there. Based in part on that report, NARA recently issued for public comment a new proposal for redesigning its own functions. You can find these documents at www.archives.gov/records_management/initiatives/rm_redesign_project.html.

The good news is that at least NARA has some understanding of the problem. In the premier understatement of the electronic age, NARA admits that it 'has not kept up' with federal electronic record-keeping. This admission is good. The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that one exists. NARA also, finally recognizes that IT staff are important players in the records creation and management process. That's another long-overdue observation.

So what is NARA's solution? It is unfair to characterize a long report in a few sentences, but I'll try. Basically, NARA wants to dump the problems on agencies to solve. NARA will mostly give guidance, training, assistance and oversight. NARA does propose to allow agencies greater latitude to dispose of records properly. That will help, but that seems to be it. The report offers lots of current management buzzwords but no leadership.

In perhaps the most telling sentence in the report, NARA proposes to accept and service electronic records 'to the extent viable from a business perspective.'

In other words, NARA still doesn't have a clue. It will accept electronic records for preservation if and when it figures it all out, which may not be for a long time. Don't put off your retirement waiting for it. Maybe that is just as well, given NARA's track record.

So what's in it for agency staff struggling with electronic records? They can expect less scrutiny from NARA and a bit more flexibility. That is something, but it still looks like NARA is unwilling and unable tackle the problem.

There's a clue to a better solution in the SRA report. SRA found that agencies with high-quality records management programs are those that are frequently sued, receive many Freedom of Information Act requests, or are under scrutiny from Congress, the media and the public.

Let's learn from that interesting finding. Take some money from the NARA budget and fund public interest litigation on records management issues. Call it a new way to contract out. Litigation may produce better results than waiting for NARA.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@netacc.net.

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