Using the Web for agency, public forums is smart

A new World Wide Web site devoted to a single regulatory action gives evidence of a
major shift in thinking about how agencies communicate with the public.

Recently the Agriculture Department solicited public comments via the Web on proposed
new organic food regulations.

The response was a remarkable average of 200 e-mail messages a day. The messages,
combined with written comments, the proposed regulations themselves and Federal Register
notices, formed a voluminous database on Agriculture's Web server. The presence of the
materials on the Web provides the entire world with a convenient record of the regulatory

Even if USDA dutifully maintained complete paper files of the action, the Web
repository will undergo far more use. The collection is easily accessed, and users have
the ability to index and search it, neither of which can be said of a file cabinet full of
paper somewhere in downtown Washington.

This gets me to the topics of records management and how agencies will deal with
electronic records.

To borrow from the old audio tape ad, is it paper or is it Memorex? Even the agency
officials with geographic access to the paper files will prefer to use the electronic
collection. The Web site will likely be more up-to-date and definitely easier to review
and analyze. If a document isn't in the database, it won't be counted and interpreted. If
it isn't in the database, it can't be reviewed and rebutted.

These kind of issues torment webmasters but intrigue records management gurus such as
Charles R. McClure of Syracuse University in New York and J. Timothy Sprehe of Sprehe
Information Management Associates Inc. of Washington. The two records mavens recently
completed a study, Analysis and Development of Model Quality Guidelines for Electronic
Records Management on State and Federal Web Sites.
" Their research was sponsored
by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.

The report is available at

The timing of the report is impeccable. Federal Circuit Judge Paul Friedman's recent
abolition of General Records Schedule 20 has eliminated the option of printing out
electronic records and preserving the printout. Friedman agreed that electronic records
have unique characteristics that don't translate to printouts. These characteristics must
be useful or why would agencies spend billions on automation?

McClure and Sprehe wisely point out that information technology managers and records
managers have differing challenges. IT people view records as data. Records managers have,
by law, a broader view of what constitutes a record.

The U.S. Code defines records as "all books, papers, maps, photographs,
machine-readable materials, and other documentary materials, regardless of physical form
or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the United States government under
federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business and preserved or
appropriate for preservation by that agency or its legitimate successor as evidence of the
organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities
of the government or because of the value of data in the record."

Even so, deciding what is an official record can be tricky. Promulgation of a
regulation clearly generates official records. But decisions are often difficult to pin to
a specific document. Does an e-mail invitation to lunch constitute an official record? It
may if the recipient is a high-level federal official and the sender is seeking to
influence a decision.

Oliver North may not have thought his e-mails to Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter were
official records when he wrote them. But lawyers and historians have disagreed.

So the webmaster of a site with 100,000 documents will have trouble discerning an
official record from a trashable document. Each content manager will have to make those
determinations, most likely using the same criteria employed for paper records.

Another question is whether the electronic record includes the server software and
system support software necessary to the development and maintenance of the electronic

If so, agencies will need to build computer museums to house all the obsolete data
files and systems used for nearly five decades of federal computing. Perhaps this will
create jobs as curators for all those lawyers and trail bosses put out to pasture by the
Information Technology Management Reform Act.

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

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