In a memo that recognizes emails, tweets and other electronic communications play a key role in government decisions, President Barack Obama is directing agencies to improve their archiving of digital records.
“Proper records management is the backbone of open government,” Obama wrote Monday in the memo to agency heads.
“Greater reliance on electronic communication and systems has radically increased the volume and diversity of information that agencies must manage,” he said. “With proper planning, technology can make these records less burdensome to manage and easier to use and share. But if records management policies and practices are not updated for a digital age, the surge in information could overwhelm agency systems, leading to higher costs and lost records.”
Records-management programs at 95 percent of agencies are at moderate-to-high risk, according to a recent survey by the National Archives and Records Administration. It found most agencies lacked the resources to manage effectively their records. Few had full-time records officers and senior officials often do not see allocating resources for records management a priority. A “significant minority of agencies” could not identify their vital records and did not comply with a required annual review of their vital records programs.
Open government advocates hailed the memo as a critical step in making the most ubiquitous government communication — email — available to the public.
Current agency practices are “dismal,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“Emails are where you have the candid exchanges that really are the so-called smoking gun,” she said. “This stuff is important for the public to hold the government accountable and tell the whole story.”
“A very clear message”
The President’s memo sets deadlines for agencies to complete specific steps toward improving their archiving systems.
Agencies must appoint within 30 days a senior official to lead a review of the agency’s records management system with an emphasis on the maintenance of electronic records, including emails, social media and data stored in cloud computing-based services.
A resulting report should describe the agency’s plan for improving or maintaining its record-keeping system. It should identify barriers to improvement and recommend any government-wide policies or programs that would help.
Agencies must submit reports to NARA and the Office of Management and Budget within 120 days on the record management review.
The memo “sends a very clear message” about the importance of managing electronic records, said Archivist David Ferreiro in a written statement. He said the Archives will conduct discussions with agencies and outside groups on ways to improve governmentwide recordkeeping.
The memo instructs the Archives and OMB to develop by next summer a more efficient and cost-effective government-wide records-management framework.
NARA and OMB also will direct agencies to take specific steps to transition from paper to electronic records management wherever possible, improve records-retention policies in accordance with their missions, increase accountability through documentation, improve transparency and make sure they are complying with legal requirements.
In the process, the Archives will evaluate laws, policies and practices to identify further ways to improve electronic records management.
“My staff and I look forward to working with agencies to ensure that they comply with the new memorandum and that we continue a government-wide effort to preserve permanent electronic records that eventually become part of the holdings of the National Archives,” Ferriero said.
Resources remain a “question mark”
As NARA and open government groups have found, agencies’ past performance with records management is lacking.
In fact, CREW sued the George W. Bush White House for violating records laws and “losing” more than 22 million emails. To settle the case, Obama released thousands of documents and established new email-keeping procedures.
Now, “at the White House, everything that needs to be saved is saved,” even Obama’s Blackberry messages, Weismann said.
But, she added, agencies have a significant challenge in matching White House efforts, noting that electronic recordkeeping takes both money and training.
“It is resource problem,” she said. “That’s a huge question mark we have now: How is the government going to deal with that problem?”
Leadership and training are keys to success
One agency that is doing relatively well warns that the process can be long and difficult.
The Government Accountability Office, which had the sixth-best score in the Archives survey, spent four years developing its digital records system.
Agency leaders felt having a top records keeping system was vital because GAO reviews other agency’s operations, said Catherine Teti, director for knowledge services and chief agency privacy officer.
“They understood the importance of effectively managing the material that we were creating and receiving electronically and doing it as efficiently as we could,” she said. “Record keeping is just part and parcel of doing business here at the agency.”
Teti added GAO’s staff understands that evidence can take any form. “That was already part of the culture and we could build on that,” she said.
GAO has a full-time records officer with a small support staff. It continuously offers training to staff on how to assess the value of emails and other materials.
Other agencies that topped the 2010 survey include the International Trade Commission, the Federal Reserve, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, USAID and the Interior Department.