Court decision puts NARA advising on hold

Federal computer and records executives, meanwhile, continue to question the
feasibility of maintaining archives in electronic form.


National Archivist John W. Carlin late last month announced the formation of an
electronic records work group of NARA specialists, agency representatives and technical
experts who will review the issue of creation, maintenance and disposition of electronic
records.


That move, however, has pleased few. The NARA work group was disparaged as too little,
too late by the public interest group that filed the suit.


"I'm surprised they have not yet issued anything about how to deal with these
records" and that NARA officials haven't started to create new schedules to replace
those were invalidated by the court, said Michael Tankersly, an attorney for the Ralph
Nader-affiliated group Public Citizen in Washington.


Commerce Department's deputy chief information officer, Alan P. Balutis, called U.S.
District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman's decision "managerially impossible."
Balutis said he is not sure there is a way to carry out the ruling.


"I look for the CIO Council to come up with some governmentwide solution because I
don't think we're going to struggle to do it individually," Balutis said.


NARA will provide advice, but only after the Justice Department decides later this
month if it will appeal Friedman's decision, said Michael Miller, director of NARA's
records management program.


"It's going to depend on what the Justice Department tells us is their official
interpretation as to the scope of the decision," he said.


Dec. 22 is the deadline for an appeal.


The electronic records work group is part of NARA's strategic plan, but the concept was
put into high gear after the court last month threw out the two-year-old NARA regulation
that allowed agencies to clear out electronic documents.


In his ruling, Friedman said electronic records have a historical value beyond paper
documents.


"Many of you may have been dismayed that once again, NARA seems to be on the
losing end of a court case and the brunt of negative publicity," Carlin said in a
Nov. 21 staff memo.


Yet there is much to be positive about, he said, because the ruling puts focus on
archiving.


"Ultimately, our strategy for dealing with the management and disposition of
electronic records is to facilitate the development of practical and affordable policies,
procedures and electronic record-keeping systems, and to encourage their implementation by
federal agencies," he said.


The work group plans to complete its work by Sept. 30, 1998.


"GRS 20 is not the answer to the disposal of records," Miller said.
"We've known for a long time that there were problems with GRS 20. This is sort of a
brave new world of what we can do with electronic records. The ability to create documents
has far outstripped our ability to manage and keep them."


Depending on the scope of the decision, the electronic records work group could face an
impossible task, Miller acknowledged.


"We don't know the extent of it," he said.


But if the decision reaches into all electronic records, it could have a tremendous
impact on documents as potentially mundane as e-mail.


"We need to look at that e-mail message based on what it does and determine
whether it should be kept," he said.


Those who will be responsible for archiving electronic records welcomed the NARA work
group.


"I am hopeful that it will result in guidelines that not only address the needs of
the user community but also provide realistic, practical direction for federal agencies
and records officers," said one information resource manager who is part of an
informal group of 150 IRM staff members interested in working with the archivists.


The manager spoke on the condition of anonymity.


Public Citizen's Tankersly said the court decision clearly states that NARA must devise
new ways to handle electronic records.


Visit NARA's World Wide Web site about the issue at http://www.nara.gov/records/grs20/.


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