Administration faces big challenge in records preservation

By Feb. 1, the National Archives and Records Administration and the White House must provide congressional watchdogs with an update on preparations for the transition of all presidential records to the National Archives by January 2009. Concerns over progress might be well-founded: Proper handling of electronic documents, the need to identify and centralize pertinent records, and the sheer volume of information all leave the White House with a mammoth project on its hands.

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, which requires each president to maintain records of all activities, deliberations, decisions and policies that reflect on performance in office. At the end of a president's administration, the Archivist of the United States assumes responsibility for the custody, control, preservation of -- and access to -- presidential records.

With the end of President Bush's two terms drawing near, the White House has until two months after the election to provide his records to the National Archives. By Feb. 1, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee wants an update on progress.

"Serious questions have been raised about whether the White House has sufficient systems to preserve presidential records and to prepare for the transition to the next president," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee's chairman, in letters to U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein and Counsel to the President Fred Fielding on Dec. 20, 2007. "According to information received by the committee, the White House has failed to implement a robust system for archiving e-mails and other electronic records, despite several efforts to do so."

Waxman referenced a 2005 review of White House servers that found numerous days of few or no e-mails among certain offices, as well as the discovery earlier this year that some White House officials used Republican National Committee e-mail accounts to exchange messages. He asked the White House and NARA to provide documents relating to the administration's potential failures to maintain Executive Office of the President e-mails, transfer of presidential records to the National Archives, and development or maintenance of electronic records management, e-mail archiving or e-mail retrieval systems. He also requested information about e-mail backup tapes.

"There are issues of policy and technology that are much bigger than the amount of [records] being managed," said Shawn McCarthy, director of government vendor programs at Falls Church, Va., research firm Government Insights. "How long does it have to be stored? How quickly does it need to be accessed? And how often does the medium it's on need to be renewed? Stored data can last longer or shorter than paper depending on how it's treated."

Electronic documents pose the biggest archiving challenge, in part because the federal government focused on paper until only recently. In August 1993, the Federal Circuit Court for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in Armstrong v. Executive Office of the President -- a case involving a challenge to the government's plans to dispose of electronic mail and word processing records of Reagan, Bush and Clinton officials -- that electronic mail and word processing files must be managed as government records.

"One of the things we did was work with the Bush administration to understand the importance of their involvement in the systems that the federal government was using," said John Carlin, U.S. archivist from 1995 to 2005, and current visiting professor of political science at Kansas State University. "The ultimate preservation, efficient use and movement of digital information are dependent on uniformity and proper standards being used. We made progress, and I'm confident that continued. But there was endless work and challenges left. Preserving digital [records] over time is a challenge bigger than the archives; it's a challenge for the world."

One issue that could affect the transition is the lack of an effective records management system. In 2007, the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the George Washington University's National Security Archive filed separate complaints, noting the Bush administration's failure to replace an electronic records management system when it switched e-mail systems in 2002.

Neither the White House nor the National Archives responded to requests for comment.

The January 2009 deadline does not apply to federal records, which are produced by agencies outside the Office of the President. Those agencies archive information on a rolling schedule -- transferring records of historical relevance to a records center maintained and operated by NARA when they're no longer necessary for daily operations. By Sept. 30, 2009, agencies must have NARA-approved lifecycle schedules for all records in electronic information systems that have been operational since Dec. 17, 2005, to determine which will be transferred to the National Archives and when.

The Federal Trade Commission "submitted a list of systems, and we're now working to develop a comprehensive plan that NARA can review to determine which portions have historic value and should be [preserved]," said Bonnie Curtin, FTC's records manager. The accepted standard is that 2 percent of records are determined to have historical value and therefore require transfer to NARA. "Different areas of government have very different roles. When you're talking about the president, whose records are practically always [kept] permanently, there needs to be different rules."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.