The Record - January 1998

From The Archivist

Moving Ahead on Electronic Records Challenges

By John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States

I am pleased to report that the National Archives and Records Administration has taken two major steps in the effort to assure the public that valuable records in electronic forms will be preserved and made accessible.

John W. Carlin, Archivist of the United States

First, I have brought together an Electronic Records Work Group of experts within NARA and other Federal agencies to undertake a concerted inter-agency effort to solve problems in managing the disposition of mounting quantities of electronic records. Additionally, I have signed an agreement with the Department of Defense to collaborate on developing and enhancing standards and specifications for automated records-management systems, applications, and tools. Both of these actions should result in greater control over government e-mail, word-processing files, and other computer-generated material of use to agency officials and the public.

The DoD Agreement

Our new collaboration with the Department of Defense will start with a review by NARA of the government-wide usefulness of a standard that DoD has recently established for electronic records-management software. This standard defines the basic legislative, operational, and regulatory requirements to be met by records-management products bought by the Department of Defense. The standard is known officially as the Design Criteria Standard for Electronic Records Management Software Applications, DoD 5015.2-STD. Along with the standard, DoD will implement a test and certification program in which vendors can submit electronic records-management software for certification of compliance with the standard. The certification program will enable DoD to acquire records management products that have been demonstrated as complying with the standard.

NARA will review the DoD standard and the testing program for their applicability throughout the Federal Government. Once this review is completed, NARA and DoD will work together to extend the standard to cover additional aspects of records management for example, to facilitate the exchange of records- management information between NARA and Federal agencies, and to automate records- management actions, such as the submission, approval, and implementation of records schedules. This will be done in conjunction with work called for in NARA's Strategic Plan to re-engineer the processes by which Federal records overall are identified, appraised, scheduled, and tracked while in agency custody.

The agreement is the outgrowth of interactions between DoD and NARA over the past three years in a variety of efforts by DoD to improve the management of its records. Many of the DoD initiatives have potential benefits across the Federal Government. NARA's strategic commitment to promoting full life-cycle management of records creates a strong interest on our part both in helping DoD to achieve its objectives and in promoting broader use of DoD solutions that qualify as best practices for records management. We are grateful to the Defense Department for its ground-breaking accomplishments and its willingness to work with NARA on ways to help protect electronic records throughout the Federal Government.

Electronic Records Work Group

At the same time, we already have had the first meeting of our new inter-agency Electronic Records Work Group. Records professionals from Federal agencies have met with specialists from our staff at the NARA facility in College Park, Maryland. Also we had input by teleconference arrangements at that meeting from outside consultants with electronic records expertise and experience in universities, state governments, and other organizations. Additionally, interested members of the public and of Federal agencies attended the meeting, which had been publicly announced. Charged to "review issues relating to the creation, maintenance, and disposition of certain types of electronic information," the Work Group is focusing on what we at NARA call General Records Schedule 20, which provides guidelines to federal agencies on the disposition of e-mail, word-processing files, and other computer-generated material.

In my view, GRS-20 needs changing. General records schedules definitely have their place, but they should be applied to the disposition of routine administrative "housekeeping" records, not to programmatic records. > Moreover, while records can be transferred from one medium to another, this should not be done carte blanche. Key contextual information must be preserved in the process. The retention scheduling of records should be record-oriented rather than medium-oriented. All of this should be done in such a way as to accomplish the desired overall result—to preserve records appropriately with retention and disposition schedules that Federal agencies, the creators of these records, can and will use.

The Work Group came together quickly and enthusiastically, which shows that Federal agencies recognize both the urgency of electronic records problems and their existence government-wide. We now have the right people together to deal with issues of critical importance to all Americans who will need access to important government records created in electronic forms.

All of this should be done in such a way as to accomplish the desired overall result—to preserve records appropriately with retention and disposition schedules that Federal agencies, the creators of these records, can and will use.

Members were invited to participate in the Work Group not as representatives of agencies but as records professionals whose experience with automated information would be useful in the group's deliberations. Also we lined up as outside consultants individuals whose expertise we wished to be sure of having available to the Work Group. However, we hope that help will come from others as well. To encourage other contributions, we have established a special Web site at NARA, where anyone can get online access to information about the Work Group's activities, provide recommendations, and comment on products produced in the group's deliberations. Also there will be notices in the Federal Register about where people without internet access can get information on activities of the Work Group and materials produced by it.

The Work Group is now reviewing a set of detailed issues proposed for discussion, along with resources and models on which to draw in dealing with records disposition issues, and will meet again in late January in a substantive session that will include time for comments from public observers. I have asked the Work Group to prepare recommendations by next July 1, with a final report including an implementation plan to be issued by the end of September 1998.

The Work Group Membership

I am grateful to the following persons who agreed to be members of the Work Group.

FEDERAL AGENCY MEMBERS: Edward Barrese, records officer, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; Maya Bernstein, Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, O.M.B.; Elizabeth Behal, departmental records officer, Department of Agriculture; Edward Cohen, director of information, C.I.A.; Dan Hocking, computer scientist, Army Research Laboratory; Eleanor Melamed, Department of Energy; Alan Proctor, chief information officer, Federal Trade Commission; and Catherine Teti, director for records management and information policy, Office of Thrift Supervision.

NARA MEMBERS: Lewis J. Bellardo, deputy archivist of the U.S.; Michael L. Miller, director, Records Management Programs; Nancy Allard, Policy and Communications Staff; Miriam Nisbet, special counsel for electronic records; Ken Thibodeau, director, Center for Electronic Records; and Mark Giguere and Jean Keeting of Records Management Programs.

NON-FEDERAL EXPERTS who have agreed to be consultants on the project are Rick Barry of Barry Associates, Luciana Duranti of the University of British Columbia, Margaret Hedstrom of the University of Michigan, James Henderson of the Maine State Archives, Alan Kowlowitz of the New York State Archives and Records Administration, John McDonald of the National Archives of Canada, Charles Robb of the Kentucky Department for Library and Archives, and Robert Williams of Cohasset Associates.

NARA's mission is to provide ready access to essential evidence—in electronic or more traditional format—that documents the rights of citizens, the actions of Federal officials, and the national experience. The challenges are great, but these new actions hold great promise for helping us meet them.