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White House looks to beef up management of electronic records

Federal agencies have until May 2012 to report on how they will improve the way they store and manage electronic records, including emails, blog posts and social media activity, according to a White House memorandum issued Monday.

The White House and National Archives and Records Administration will use the reports to draft a new records management directive that aims to make better use of electronic document storage technology, and perhaps to craft a "governmentwide records management framework."

Records now are managed primarily on an agency-by-agency basis with little cooperation. The memorandum directs agency chiefs to appoint a senior official within 30 days to lead the reviews.

About 95 percent of agencies fail to meet statutory requirements for maintaining their records, according to a NARA estimate based on agency self-assessments.

In some cases, that means agencies aren't saving the proper records. In other cases, they are storing records electronically but not taking steps to ensure they can be read or retrieved years down the road.

Agencies aren't required to turn over most records to NARA until 30 years after they were created, making it unlikely older documents will be stored in a file format contemporary computers will be adept at or even capable of reading.

Archivist of the United States David Ferriero has suggested reducing that lag time to a president's full term in office of either four or eight years.

Changing the 30-year window likely will be necessary to make a governmentwide electronic record management system feasible, Anne Weismann, chief counsel of the advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington told Nextgov. CREW has filed numerous lawsuits aimed at preserving federal records. The deadline for saving documents could possibly be modified through executive orders or other policy statements rather than through legislation, she said.

Ferriero has acknowledged technical limitations to electronic records management systems in testimony. He also has said those limitations would be less severe if agencies made records management a higher priority.

The majority of agencies, for example, aren't able to automatically capture and store employees' emails so they instruct employees to print and file any email they might be required to keep, according to NARA. That significantly raises the risk that those emails will be lost or misplaced or that employees won't accurately determine which messages must be archived.

The White House, which operates under the stricter, post-Watergate, 1978 Presidential Records Act has a system that automatically captures all emails sent from White House accounts. Something similar could likely be built and applied governmentwide, Weismann said, though it would have to be retrofitted for agencies that are much larger than the White House and have different records requirements.

"From an overall economic viewpoint, that's the way to go," she said. "But some agencies are already part way down the path to electronic records and the question is will they call it quits and wait for another [governmentwide] solution."

Weismann said she hopes the White House will consult with transparency advocates and the private sector, which has made strides in electronic preservation of financial and scientific material for legal discovery and other purposes.

"This is the story of what we did and why we did it and you can't tell that story without the records," Weismann said. "Those issues come into sharpest relief at the White House, where the decisions are the most significant. But it doesn't stop there. There are a lot of decisions made in agencies on a daily basis with enormous repercussions -- decisions affecting health care or why we fight a war or you name it . . . This is the way we learn from our mistakes."

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