The weekend of July 4th celebrations seems a good time to look at the Declaration of Independence.  As an archivist, I’ve been struck by the fact that Thomas Jefferson included in his list of grievances against King George III something about the importance of public records:

“He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.”

Knowing this long history of the acknowledgement that public records contribute to fair government, the recent stories about bungled records management by the Internal Revenue Service are all the more appalling.  A few weeks ago, in the midst of a Congressional investigation into how the IRS had handled nonprofit organizations that are affiliated with the Tea Party, the IRS revealed that a significant chunk of the emails of Lois Lerner, Director of Exempt Organizations, were lost when her computer crashed in 2011.  The IRS passed this off as bad luck technologically and explained its policy of only keeping email backup tapes for six months.

Others have not been quite so understanding.  David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States and head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), testified before Congress on June 24th that the IRS should have notified NARA when the records were lost in the summer of 2011, but they failed to do so.  The Society of American Archivists responded to Ferriero’s testimony by calling on the executive and legislative branches to increase funding for NARA so that it can appropriately exercise its oversight.  And Jon Stewart managed to fill up a ten-minute segment on The Daily Show about the debacle.

Efforts are already underway to improve records management in the federal government, though it appears to have come a little too late with regard to the IRS.  In November 2011, President Obama signed a memorandum on Managing Government Records.  While Obama’s memorandum focused more on the need for economic efficiency, in their August 2012 Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies and Independent Agencies, Ferriero and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget asserted:

“Records are the foundation of open government, supporting the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration.  Well-managed records can be used to assess the impact of programs, to improve business processes, and to share knowledge across the Government.  Records protect the rights and interests of people, and hold officials accountable for their actions.  Permanent records document our nation’s history.”

This memo goes on to specify that “by December 31 , 2016, Federal agencies must manage all email records in an electronic format.”  Gone are the days of print and file as an acceptable method for handling email.  In light of this directive, in August 2013, NARA issued a bulletin that outlines a new approach to managing email records, known as “Capstone.”  This focuses on the identification and accessibility of captured emails moreso than the technical procedures to guarantee their retention.  But given Ferriero’s rapid response to the IRS situation, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot more training for federal employees regarding email.  I just hope that when this problems is resolved that we’ll have made Jefferson proud.