On Friday, August 24, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) belatedly issued the Managing Government Records Directive. The Directive lays out the framework for how the federal government plans to make sure it is effectively and efficiently managing electronic records. There is much for the open government community to like in the Directive: a requirement that agencies designate a senior official to oversee records management and an emphasis on managing records in the cloud, for example. And there is one big thing for open government advocates to not like: deadlines that mean it will be many more years before we can say with any certainty that federal government agencies are not improperly destroying or otherwise losing records.
Past experiences have demonstrated that failing to properly manage records, especially email, creates an unacceptable risk of losing valuable information. The loss of millions of emails by George W. Bush's White House denied investigators, historians, and the public critical information about the outing of former CIA agent Valerie Plame, the controversial dismissal of US Attorneys, and more. The loss of e-mail messages written by the Bush administration lawyers credited with approving harsh interrogation tactics similarly denies the public the ability to understand the development of national policies and to hold officials accountable.
Strong records management practices are also important for making the government more efficient. If they cannot efficiently find the records, it takes a lot more time and resources for agencies to answer requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and from Congressional overseers. Being able to locate records is also important for the agency's internal management.
Over the last few years, annual reports prepared by NARA evaluating the strength of agencies records management programs have shown just how bad the situation is: a majority of agencies are at risk of losing or destroying records. We are excited to see the government is finally beginning to tackle this problem, and wish we would see results far sooner.