Agency policies on electronic records still in limbo

After years of legal jousting, federal agencies have retained the right to delete e-mail messages and other electronic records from their computer systems. They still, however, must figure out the best procedures for disposing of such records and archiving paper copies of them.

Last week, the Supreme Court denied a petition from Public Citizen, a watchdog group, to review an appeals court's ruling upholding federal electronics records practices. That ruling had overturned a 1997 federal court decision invalidating a National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) policy allowing agencies to dispose of word processing documents and e-mail messages after paper copies were printed out and properly archived. Since the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, the appeals court's decision stands.

In a memorandum to agency records officers and information resources managers issued after the Supreme Court decision, Michael L. Miller, director of modern records programs at NARA, said the agency will work with federal, state and local organizations, as well as professional associations within the archiving community, on improving electronic records management.

"We are looking for better ways ... to systematically take care of word processing and electronic mail records," said Miller. NARA's current policy says business-related documents such as letters, memoranda, reports and electronic mail messages can be deleted after "they have been copied to an electronic record-keeping system, paper, or microform for record-keeping purposes."

Michael Tankersley, counsel for Public Citizen, said the group planned on taking up the electronic records issue with other federal agencies, but did not specify what type of action it would pursue. He said preserving electronic records guarantees that all information-including who created the record and when-is maintained, and makes searching for that information much easier than sorting through paper copies.

"We are concerned that there is a failure to preserve business-related e-mails," Tankersley stated, arguing that efforts need to be made at the top levels of government to ensure that records dealing with policy-making and other deliberations by high-level managers are preserved and managed appropriately.

Miller emphasized that "what we [NARA and the federal government] do in records may have an impact on the private sector," and that everyone from the federal community to professional organizations needs to be involved in the effort to improve electronic records management because of the "ripple effect" the issue could have.

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