Thursday, August 13, 2009

SAA 2009: Government Records Section meeting

Austin's Congress Street Bridge, which spans Lady Bird Lake, is home to the nation's largest urban bat colony. During the summer months, up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats live in the crevices under the bridge. At dusk, the bats fly out in waves and search for food; each night, they eat between 10,000-20,000 pounds of insects.

After a brief business meeting, SAA members who attended the Government Records Section got to hear two great speakers address freedom of information issues at the state federal and local level.

David Mengel of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Special Access/FOIA Staff unit, which handles Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests concerning archival materials created by executive branch agencies, discussed recent changes in the federal government’s handling of FOIA requests and recent trends affecting the National Archives.

Immediately after taking office, President Obama issued statements pledging his commitment to transparency, openness, and collaboration within government and instructing agencies that records should be reviewed with a presumption of openness. Shortly afterward, the U.S. Attorney General issued a memo instructing agencies to review FOIA requests with a presumption of openness and issued comprehensive guidelines relating to each FOIA exemption.

Mengel emphasized that these developments constitute a significant shift in the federal government’s commitment to openness. However, this shift also complicates NARA’s work in ways that ought to be increasingly familiar to other government archivists:
  • NARA gets a lot of FOIA requests for open records, in part because people don’t know that records are open and in part because they want NARA to do their research for them. The volume of requests covering very large quantities of records is steadily increasing.
  • NARA is also trying to figure out how to review large quantities of e-mail and other electronic textual documents. For example, it has yet to find any workable search strategy for locating Social Security Numbers within State Department cables, which have been kept electronically since 1973. NARA ended up sampling the records and discovered that SSNs were typically bundled with dates and places of birth; however, the abbreviations associated with these elements of information have changed over time.
  • Federal agencies are running out of storage space, so NARA is getting records that are more recent -- and thus have more privacy issues and other problems (e.g., proprietary information) than older records. It doesn’t help that agencies don’t always identify these issues prior to transfer. In an effort to [identify problems,] Mengel’s unit is trying to get more involved in the appraisal process and looking at records as they come in. However, NARA’s need to review newer records may lead the public to conclude that it’s hiding information.
Mengel concluded by noting that although his unit is trying to improve its handling of FOIA requests, it’s being overwhelmed; there simply aren’t enough people to do the work. Moreover, future developments that NARA views as positive will likely bring new challenges: it looks as if President will soon establish a National Declassification Center under the supervision of the Archivist of the United States, and NARA’s workload may increase dramatically as a result.

Sean Malone, the Records Service Manager of Travis County, Texas, then discussed openness and transparency issues from a local government perspective. He emphasized that in some respects, the situation in Texas is better than that at the federal level: Texas has a strong tradition of openness and transparency, and the Attorney General determines statewide procedures for reviewing and disclosing records. However, local governments in Texas face persistent and worsening fiscal constraints; when times are bad, it’s especially hard to make the case for spending money on records and archives instead of aid to needy families or other essential services.

Malone also highlighted two records issues that pose particular problems for him and for other records managers:
  • Resolving conflicts between employees’ First Amendment rights and the public’s right to access government information. Information created on BlackBerries, etc., is a particular problem: people are deeply resistant to the idea that the personal e-mails and text messages on their employer-supplied devices are public records and that work files on their home computers must be turned over.
  • The need for better ways to search electronic records and identify materials requested by researchers. Unfortunately, the technology is not forthcoming. For example, Novell’s GroupWise e-mail application, which the county uses, does not have the market share needed to spur development of good e-mail management solutions. Managing e-mail is thus a real problem for the county, and there is a real tension between what the state says it should be doing and what it can do given its fiscal situation.

Malone closed by discussing e-mail issues at the state government level: Governor Rick Perry has ordered that his staff’s e-mail be purged after seven days, and staffers are responsible for printing out records that have longer retention periods. Owing to the sheer volume of e-mail that users receive and the complexity of the state’s records schedules, gubernatorial staffers automatically forward all messages to their personal accounts so that they can retrieve it later if necessary. However, happens to this e-mail when people no longer work for the state?

Great presenters, great presentations, lots to think about.

1 comment:

Jeremy N. said...

Interesting things to talk about, it sounds like. Wish I'd been there.

...and clearly this means that people see a need for more funding to hire government archivists, right? Right?