Yesterday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (HOGR) again turned its focus to federal records and transparency laws in a hearing titled “Preventing Violations of Federal Transparency Laws.” Witnesses included four current and former senior administration officials who have been publicly linked to compliance problems for their use of personal or nonofficial email accounts to conduct official business. Archivist of the United States David Ferriero also testified.
The hearing raised important questions about agency compliance with the Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act, especially in light of President Obama’s 2011 Memorandum on Managing Government Records and subsequent Managing Government Records Directive to modernize records management policies and practices in the digital age. The Directive requires agencies to transition to electronic recordkeeping “to ensure transparency, efficiency and accountability” and sets forth concrete steps and actions for agencies to take under a broad timeline. It also requires that records officers obtain additional training and establishes a formal records management occupational series to raise the profile of records managers.
The recently released 2012 agency Records Management Self-Assessments (RMSA) show some progress in meeting the Directive deadlines; while the majority of agencies still score in the Moderate to High Risk categories for compliance with statutory and regulatory records management requirements, the National Records and Archives Administration (NARA) reports that there is movement upward in scores within these categories. Agencies have increased their permanent electronic records transfer activity using NARA’s the Electronic Records Archives, and many agency records management staff now report participating in the design and development of electronic systems. More than two-thirds of agencies report taking steps to improve the integrity and usability of electronic records, including designating an agency official at the assistant secretary level to take responsibility for records management. Still, agencies’ approaches to preserving their official electronic records are inconsistent at best.
In his testimony, former White House Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin wrote, “Government recordkeeping now confronts an era in which employees have a vastly expanded, and expanding, menu of personal and social communication channels.” With personal email addresses, social networking sites, and the ability—or necessity— to work from home on nights and weekends, agency staffs are facing new questions about proper recordkeeping in the digital age. Many of the witnesses in yesterday’s hearing pointed to a lack of training on proper recordkeeping practices and cited technological challenges for their misconduct. Ferriero recognized the “challenges we all face in managing the vast and growing numbers of email records” in his testimony and appealed for a new “culture around records” with agency compliance becoming a top priority.
HOGR has reported favorably two bills (H.R. 1233 and H.R. 1234) introduced by Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) to update the Federal Records Act and Presidential Records Act and promulgate regulations governing federal agency preservation of electronic messages. AALL has long been concerned about the lack of adequate records management, particularly of electronic records, and urges Congress to support these bills. We commend the Obama administration and NARA for taking proactive steps to fix a broken and oft-neglected records management system, but urge a renewed focus on full agency compliance.