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April 11, 2000

Comments On NARA's Plan to Commission Study on Record Scheduling and Appraisal

Original document created: 2000/4/11


Public Citizen, Inc., a nonprofit, public interest organization, hereby submits the following comments on the draft work plan for stage I of the Scheduling and Appraisal Project proposed by the National Archives and Records Administration (“NARA”). 65 Fed. Reg. 16230 (March 27, 2000); (accessed, April 10, 2000).

The Project outlined in NARA's Project Plan is ill-conceived and will not address the current and ongoing loss of valuable federal records caused by the deficiencies in NARA's scheduling and appraisal policies. NARA is in the midst of a crisis that has been growing for more than a decade. Numerous studies over the past fifteen years have examined and chronicled the need for reform of the scheduling and appraisal procedures, particularly with respect to electronic records. Under the draft plan, however, concrete action to address the most fundamental problems would not begin until at least fiscal year 2002, even if the Scheduling and Appraisal Project stays on schedule. Such delay in addressing these fundamental issues is irresponsible because, in the meantime, records will be irreparably lost due to shortcomings in NARA's policies that are already well documented and widely recognized.

We have four specific comments on the draft plan.

First, if NARA is to undertake an evaluation of the policies underlying scheduling and appraisal, it should do so in conformity with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, 5 U.S.C. Appendix II. The draft plan contemplates hiring a consultant or consultants to gather information and provide NARA with policy analysis and options for reform of scheduling and appraisal. The Federal Advisory Committee Act seeks to assure that when agencies seek to obtain such advice, the proceedings are open to public scrutiny and do not result in biased proposals. Consequently, if NARA choses to obtain outside advice for this type of Project, compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act's requirements will be important to ensure the legal validity of the process and to ensure the credibility of the final product.

Second, the “information gathering phase” for which NARA proposes to hire a consultant or consultants is poorly conceived and should be abandoned or substantially redefined. The draft plan contemplates that the consultants will gather information on four broad topics:(1) agencies' views on scheduling and appraisal; (2) “how the new electronic environment is affecting the creation, management and disposition of records within the Government,” (3) whether NARA staff and private citizens are satisfied with NARA's current processes; and (4) “how changes in technology are affecting the ways in which the public and the Government access and use Government records.”

NARA already has voluminous information on these matters, and there is substantial literature on these topics. Moreover, the information gathering contemplated by the draft plan will not provide significant new revelations. The draft plan allocates only three months for the consultants to complete the information gathering and, not surprisingly, recognizes that the consultants will only have time to gather information from a sample of federal agencies, public customers, and NARA staff. If NARA is to hire consultants to undertake “information gathering” on scheduling and appraisal policy, the information gathering should be narrowly focused on issues on which NARA does not already have information, and which is directly related to correcting the problems with the scheduling and appraisal process.

Third, the stated goal of the project is too broad and ill defined. Indeed, the draft plan's statement of the goals is incredibly open-ended:

    The overall goals for the scheduling and appraisal project are to define what should be the Federal Government's policies on determining the disposition of Federal records, the processes that will best implement those procedures, and the tools that are needed to support the revised policies and processes.

Draft Work Plan § 1.1. In addition, the draft plan provides that the goals of the Project are not limited “by current policies, laws, regulations, guidance, or practices.” Id. § 1.2.

Thus, the Archivist has not defined a goal or objective for scheduling and appraisal policy. Instead, the draft plan contemplates that the Project will begin with a blank slate and will determine what the goals should be (without being limited by current law on the subject) and develop the tools to implement those yet-to-be-determined goals. Such an open-ended inquiry shows a lack of leadership by the Archivist, and seems doomed to failure because the Archivist has not provided meaningful guidance for the project.

Moreover, the draft plan contemplates that the “tools” developed by this project will be too abstract for immediate implementation. For example, the draft plan states that the project “will not develop any automated systems to implement recommendations,” even though the need for an automated system to expedite record scheduling has been evident for many years. Nor does the draft plan provide that the project team shall produce draft regulations, schedules or policy statements that are ready for adoption or implementation. Thus, the draft plan contemplates that, even when the project concludes in September 2001, NARA will still need to develop the automated systems, regulations, schedules and policy statements needed to reform the scheduling and appraisal system.

Fourth, the draft plan fails to deal with the most critical issues concerning scheduling and appraisal. For example, the inadequacy of NARA's practices for electronic records, particularly General Records Schedule 20, are well documented. Indeed, NARA has already had an inter- agency group, assisted by consultants, draft comprehensive revisions to this Schedule. See Electronic Records Group Report to the Archivist of the United States (Sept. 14, 1998). Although the Archivist pledged to implement the key recommendations of this study in September 1998, the Archivist has now suspended the most critical recommendations of the inter-agency study, and the Scheduling and Appraisal Project will not implement the reforms.

General Records Schedule 20, however, is just one of the critical scheduling and appraisal problems that have continued to fester without NARA moving forward on essential reforms. It is well established that NARA's current scheduling and appraisal practices are too slow to keep pace with the number of record systems that need to be scheduled.1 In 1997, NARA committed itself to rectifying this problem by streamlining its procedures so that, by fiscal year 1999, NARA would complete processing of 40% of the schedule items submitted by agencies within 120 days. Id. At the same time, NARA also stated that it would develop and implement “an automated system to help NARA and Federal agencies identify, appraise, schedule, accession and track records.”2 In the past three years, however, NARA has not made any perceptible progress toward these goals, and the situation has gotten worse rather than better. In fiscal year 1999, NARA only processed 14% of agencies' record schedule items within 120 days of receipt -- a figure that is down from the 23% processed prior to 1997.3 Moreover, NARA fell behind in processing agency schedules as the total number of items processed fell by 47%, and agencies submitted 33% more schedule items than NARA processed during the year. Id. NARA has not made progress on developing and implementing an automated system to make scheduling and appraisal more efficient and, as noted above, the draft work plan explicitly provides that the Scheduling and Appraisal Project will not produce such a system by fiscal year 2002.

As a further illustration, NARA itself has recognized that it needs a baseline assessment survey on records management capabilities and programs of all federal agencies.4 In 1997, NARA committed itself to revise its procedures to obtain such baseline information by fiscal year 1998 or 1999, id., and the Government Accounting Office recently underscored the importance of obtaining this information for effective management of electronic records.5 NARA has not conducted the baseline survey, however, and the draft plan does not provide for such a survey. Instead, the draft plan provides only for gathering information on records practices at a few agencies chosen for sampling, a practice that will continue to leave NARA without the comprehensive baseline of information that it needs to perform its statutory obligations.

As a final example, a longstanding flaw in NARA's activities is that it is not able to determine “what percentage of Federal records have been inventoried and scheduled.”6 Moreover, even when records are scheduled, NARA does not have an effective system for ensuring that records identified in those schedules as historically valuable have been transferred and preserved in accordance with the schedule. Every year, NARA discovers record systems that should have been inventoried and scheduled decades earlier, or finds that some records that should have been transferred for preservation have, instead, been destroyed or left at an agency without proper storage and management. The draft plan does not directly address this fundamental problem, nor does it require that the Project develop and implement a solution during the course of the project.

Accordingly, we urge NARA not to adopt the draft work plan, but to revise the Scheduling and Appraisal Project to focus on promptly developing and implementing solutions to the most fundamental deficiencies in NARA's program. These include (i) phasing-out the use of General Record Schedule 20 for electronic records in favor of agency-specific schedules for program records; (ii) developing an automated system to help NARA and Federal agencies identify, appraise, schedule, accession and track records; (iii) completing a baseline survey of the records management practices for all federal agencies, particularly for electronic records; and (iv) determining the extent to which agency records have not been scheduled, or scheduled records have not been transferred in accordance with schedule determinations.

Respectfully submitted,

Michael E. Tankersley
Public Citizen Litigation Group
1600 20th Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 588-1000
Attorney for Public Citizen, Inc.

April 11, 2000

Footnote: 1     See, e.g., 1996 NARA Strategic Plan, Ready Access to Essential Evidence at 11 (Aug. 1996).

Footnote: 2     1997 NARA Strategic Plan, Ready Access to Essential Evidence at 22, 23 (Sept. 30, 1997).

Footnote: 3     NARA Fiscal Year 1999 Annual Performance Report, Appendix A (March 31, 2000).

Footnote: 4     1997 NARA Strategic Plan at 24 (“If NARA is to meet its statutory responsibility for oversight, we will need information on records management in 334 Federal agency components creating records in thousands of locations.”)

Footnote: 5     GAO, National Archives: Preserving Electronic Records in an Era of Rapidly Changing Technology at 9, 17 (July 1999).

Footnote: 6     1997 NARA Strategic Plan, at 22.

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