Records Preservation Reform

Government records are the records of the people and offer the public a direct look into government decision-making, which makes them deeply important to properly preserve. In the federal government’s executive branch, preservation of records is dictated by the Federal Records Act (FRA) and Presidential Records Act (PRA). These two pieces of legislation codify exactly which agency and presidential records must be preserved, for how long, and where. The FRA and PRA are vital for keeping our government open and accountable.

Open The Government and its coalition partners are working to strengthen the FRA and PRA to ensure that future administrations create a historical record that the public can rely on.

Origins of the FRA and PRA

Legislation dictating records preservation within the executive branch began in 1950 with the FRA, which requires federal agencies to preserve records of government business. Under the FRA, federal agency employees—but not the president or White House personnel—must preserve recorded information related to official government business. These records are then collected and archived by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Several years later, in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s efforts to withhold his records, Congress began taking steps to mandate the preservation of presidential records. The PRA, which President Carter signed into law in 1978, codified public access to and stronger preservation requirements for presidential records. As with the FRA, NARA is responsible for the long-term management of records, collecting and archiving presidential records at the conclusion of an administration.

Why reform the FRA and PRA?

Congress has amended the FRA and PRA several times since first passing the legislation, but weaknesses in records preservation remain that obscure history and obstruct accountability. Some of these weaknesses have arisen due to how the nature of government business has evolved—with records increasingly generated electronically through mediums like email and messaging applications, rather than paper documents—but shortcomings in enforcement mechanisms have also made it far too easy for government officials to flout records preservation without facing meaningful consequences. Presidents and executive branch officials from both political parties have destroyed telephone logs, shielded emails from congressional investigations, used a private email server and private messaging devices, and physically ripped up documents. Without meaningful reform, these violations will only continue. 

Congress must update the FRA and PRA with stronger enforcement mechanisms and updated language on technological advancements to ensure that the public has access to a complete and accurate record of government business.

OTG’s efforts to strengthen the FRA and PRA

Open The Government is advocating for meaningful reforms to the FRA and PRA. In collaboration with coalition partners and other stakeholders, OTG has identified the most urgently needed reforms to improve accountability and modernize preservation requirements to better keep pace with new and emerging technologies. These reforms would establish a bright-line rule that all presidential records merit preservation; ban the use of private devices and disappearing messaging apps unless there is a system in place to automatically back up content to a federal system; expand the proactive disclosure of records; and provide additional funding and resources to NARA to support records collection and preservation, among other objectives.