IRS E-mail Controversy Gives Boost to Electronic Records Reform

    Jul 08, 2014

    Revelations regarding the unauthorized disposal of e-mail records at the Internal Revenue Service have created new momentum for efforts to reform records management policies and practices in the federal government.

    Testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on June 24, David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, highlighted the work being done by government agencies to meet electronic recordkeeping deadlines and to demonstrate compliance with federal records management statutes and regulations.

    “The effective management of e-mail is a central, animating issue for the National Archives and the government as a whole as we work to meet the requirements of [the Managing Government Records Directive],” Ferriero said. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Office of Management and Budget had issued that directive in August 2012 as a means to implement a presidential memorandum from November 2011 which started an effort in the executive branch to reform records management policies and practices. 

    Lawmakers, however, raised doubts about the ability of government agencies to implement and effectively execute the records management reforms. “Is this too big to solve?” asked Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) at the hearing. “I can see us … in five years, 10 years from now sitting here going through this same situation.”

    Ferriero said it would help if Congress enacted pending legislation that would, in effect, no longer require agencies to print and file electronic documents considered to be official records. The Electronic Message Preservation Act (H.R. 1234) would amend the Federal Records Act to require federal agencies to capture, manage, and preserve electronic records, and to require such records to be retrievable through electronic searches. The legislation was favorably reported out of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in March 2013 but has been held up over Administration concerns about the treatment of presidential records. 

    IRS Commissioner John Koskinen faced two days of tough questioning before Congress over claims that two years of e-mails from Lois Lerner, the official at the center of the controversy regarding the agency’s alleged targeting of conservative groups, were lost because her computer crashed. Partisan tensions escalated further when Ferriero told committee members on June 24 that the IRS “did not follow the law” that requires agencies to inform NARA when they become aware of the unauthorized destruction of records.

    Ferriero’s acknowledgement prompted the House Appropriations Committee to adopt a bipartisan amendment to legislation funding the IRS for fiscal year 2015 that would prohibit funds to the agency for destroying or disposing of records in violation of the Federal Records Act and require the U.S. Archivist to report on compliance with the rule.

    To help members of Congress and their staffs understand the complexities of records management and information governance, several Capitol Hill offices were provided copies of ARMA International’s Generally Accepted Recordkeeping Principles®, as well as a letter the organization submitted to NARA outlining proposals for promoting best practices, professional standards, and education and training for records and information management programs in the federal government.

    “As Congress considers responding to the challenges and opportunities related to the use of electronic records in federal agencies, we can help provide guidance, particularly as it relates to creating a more open, transparent, and effective government,” said Liz Icenogle, ARMA’s associate director of Government Affairs.

    The Washington Policy Brief is an online advisory that contains brief summaries of recent legislative and regulatory issues that may affect the records and information management profession. Further information about the issue is accessed by clicking on the link provided at the end of each summary.


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