NARA: Records management not one size fits all

Tuesday - 8/23/2011, 8:12am EDT

Paul Wester, chief government records officer, NARA

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

For federal agencies, "cleaning house" can be a complicated matter.

They just can't throw away old files. There are rules for how and — perhaps more important in light of recent allegations involving the Securities and Exchange Commission — when agencies can dispose of certain records.

Recently, whistleblowers at the regulatory agency have said the SEC destroyed documents detailing preliminary investigations and may have done so since the early 1990s.

Paul Wester, the chief records officer for the government at NARA, told Federal News Radio the agency first became aware of SEC's "records management issue" when it was contacted by an SEC employee in July 2010.

Following the schedule

At the center of the controversy were record-keeping practices involving "Matters Under Inquiry," the SEC's term for documents detailing preliminary investigations.

The MUIs, it turns out, didn't have their own records-control schedule. The schedules are created by NARA and detail when and how official documents should be retained or disposed of.

Specific schedules are developed by NARA under the Federal Records Act of 1950 and are granted by the Archivist of the United States, who heads the agency.

Schedules direct agencies how to dispose of documents that have only "temporary value," Wester said, and also how to deal with the 1 to 3 percent of agency records that have historic importance and are "permanently valuable." Those are eventually transferred to the National Archives.

Generally, NARA staff works with the agency-level records officer to determine the agency's "business needs" in disposing of or keeping records, Wester said, as well as determining the rights and interests of citizens to have access to the records and finding out what records have true historical value.

Having the right people in the room

Managing an agency's records often involves many different decision-makers: from the records managers to general counsels and, especially as more records are digital, chief information officers.

As for NARA's role, Wester said, "The onus is on us to confront the agency and make them aware of," improper records-keeping practices, he said, as it did last summer when the SEC whistleblower first came to NARA.

"The main issue that we work with agencies [on] is to help them get practices and procedures in place so it doesn't happen again," he added.

"I'm a records manger by trade and I'm not a lawyer. But our focus ... is to help agencies better manage their records so we can have good practices in place in those agencies," he said, adding that NARA does involve its general counsel when legal issues arise.

The rule of thumb for all agencies in determining the proper stance on records is collaboration, he said, between agencies' chief records-keepers, general counsels and IT managers.

"What we preach in our records-management training classes ... is that you need to have the right people in the room to understand what your business is and what the records and information that are generated from those businesses are, so you can better manage them."

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