Surging ahead into the electronic world

It's not rocket surgery ... but digitizing records management and access is a challenge. (ARC Identifier 6481984)
It’s not rocket surgery … but digitizing records management and access is a challenge. (ARC Identifier 6481984)

As we move toward a more digitized society, we’re continually looking to build upon electronic access and management of government records. FOIA requesters and agency FOIA professionals came together this week to discuss issues they face working with electronic records.

Records management was a key point of discussion — electronic records can be incredibly time-saving, but agencies need to be able to easily index and locate them, said Melanie Pustay, the Director of the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the Department of Justice. “If records are managed and controlled electronically,” she added,” then everything FOIA-related will benefit from that.”

The Requester Roundtables are a quarterly public event co-hosted by OIP and OGIS. The July 24, 2013 event focused on “Providing Records in Electronic Formats” and included about 50 individuals from the FOIA requester community and from federal agencies.

The group spent a lot of time discussing government email practices; specifically, how federal agencies search for and manage emails. “The vast majority of agencies do not have electronic recordkeeping for email,” said OGIS Director Miriam Nisbet. “NARA is committed to getting agencies there.” Nisbet referred to an upgrade directed by the Managing Government Records Directive, issued jointly by the Office of Management and Budget and the National Archives and Records Administration. (We blogged about it here.)

The Directive sets a 2016 deadline for agencies to implement updated email systems that will serve as the recordkeeping system for non-temporary messages. As with anything created by a federal employee, not all email is necessarily a federal record, subject to recordkeeping policies and FOIA.

Presently, for most agencies, the official record of an email is the printed version that is filed in a location that corresponds to the subject. For example, emails related to FOIA requests would be printed and placed in the file for that FOIA request. Most email systems only keep emails for a transitory period of time, 90 or 180 days for example, before they are purged from the system because the email system is not the official management system. The new systems should be able to function as the management system for these records so agency folks no longer have to print and file every single business email they send.

Requesters at the roundtable also raised an oft-cited complaint: that email systems are not centrally searchable and when a requester seeks email messages, he or she has to identify specific offices or employees who must then search their own email for responsive records. The goal is for the newer systems to alleviate this frustration that is shared by both agency professionals and requesters. Newer systems have central search capabilities so, for example, the FOIA office could conduct an agency-wide search for emails on a particular subject for a particular time frame and the requester would be able to potentially receive agency-wide results for that subject. The goal is for these such systems to be in place by the end of 2014.

In the meantime, the group at the roundtable discussed ways to work with the systems that are in place, including finding ways to target email requests to specific individuals or offices when possible. And to be prepared that it will take some time with these older systems since there is no central search function.

The group also discussed electronic format issues, including a reminder that the FOIA “requires agencies to honor the requester’s choice of format if it is available and reasonably reproducible,” said Pustay. “Agencies have an even stronger incentive to move that way if they are not already there because of the President’s Open Data directive,” Nisbet added.

The May 2013 Executive Order, “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information,” directs agencies to implement an Open Data Policy that provides for managing records digitally throughout their life cycle. The goal is for government data to be easier to find, access and use, and more open as a result.

The next Requester Roundtable will be held in the fall. Keep an eye on the FOIA Ombudsman blog for date, topic and RSVP information.