Court ruling will lead to broader records storage
GRS 20 was issued in August 1995 by the National Archives and Records Administration to
cover the disposition of electronic records. The controversy leading to the court case was
over provisions that let agencies print electronic documents, file the hard copy as the
official record and delete the electronic version.
But last month, U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman for the District of Columbia ruled
that GRS 20 is null and void and that "defendant agencies Executive Office of the
President and the U.S. Trade Representative may not destroy electronic records created,
received, or stored on electronic mail or word processing systems pursuant to General
Records Schedule 20'' [GCN, Nov. 10, Page 1].
The General Records Schedule covers administrative records common to all agencies. NARA
writes GRS regulations for the disposal of routine agency records in such areas as
personnel, payroll, procurement and supply. The GRS does not cover program
records--documents relating to the establishment of agency regulations, policy, procedures
and program decisions.
Unfortunately, GRS 20 encompassed all electronic records, administrative and
programmatic. The judge declared that NARA could no more write a GRS concerning electronic
records than it could write one on handwritten records.
To do so, NARA would be "absolving itself of its responsibilities," he said.
Congress entrusted NARA with the duty because of a perception that some agencies have a
natural inclination to prevent the disclosure of mistakes and misconduct.
Previous GRS rules have included specific dates for the disposal of the records
covered. The judge found that GRS 20 failed to establish such disposal dates for this
broad category of records, as required by law.
When the government argued that not all schedules cite specific time frames, Friedman
responded by deploring those other omissions, but he refused to accept previous mistakes
as a justification for the error.
GRS 20 let information technology managers say the records issue belonged to the
program offices. Program staff are better able to tell an administrative message from a
programmatic one. Without GRS 20, feds may have to sort through millions of messages and
documents, disposing of each category according to its prescribed disposition schedule.
The very thought of the task would make any federal manager consider an early out.
And we thought the year 2000 crisis was a headache.
Fortunately, Friedman also stated, "If mixed administrative and program records
cannot be economically segregated, the entire file should be kept for the period of time
approved for the program records."
Records managers will quickly find the maximum retention period and keep everything
that long. NARA will get boxes of tapes, disks and CDs replete with lunch plans, chain
letters, party announcements and forwarded jokes, as well as a handful of documents with
some historic significance.
Some historians and librarians may complain that amassing such a collection is an
inappropriate response to the judge's decision. They would be absolutely wrong. Better the
research community search electronically through millions of documents than to rely on us
bureaucrats to decide, item by item, what goes where. A travel voucher or personnel action
may have historical importance that contemporaries can't anticipate.
Consider the White House tapes of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Would the historians
prefer the complete raw footage of these tapes, or just the snippets meticulously sorted
by a Richard Nixon?
My guess is there would have been more than just an 18-minute gap. Better to have
disinterested researchers make these decisions than harried civil servants hurriedly pack
to catch the early train to retirement.
Who knows--cultural anthropologists of the future may appreciate this impending
treasure of trivia, like an ancient trash dump of broken pots and desiccated offal. Maybe
social scientists will learn how our society coped with the dawn of the Internet from the
evolution of travel voucher automation.
The extinction of paperwork may be as interesting to future researchers as the
extinction of the dinosaurs is to paleontologists today.
Meanwhile, federal IT management must endure another unfunded mandate.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.