SAA Austin Recap #3! Public Involvement and Transparency in Records Scheduling and Appraisal

Author: Cathrine Giles (Manager, State Records Branch, Archives and Records Management Division, Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives)

306 – Public Involvement and Transparency in Records Scheduling and Appraisal

Meg Phillips (National Archives and Records Administration) began the session by noting that there had recently been quite a bit of interest in NARA’s proposed records schedules, encouraging NARA to examine how they engage the public and audiences that aren’t only archives and records information management peers. NARA wasn’t satisfied with the way they were taking public comments on proposed records schedules in the past; a change was made to the process this past spring.

Maggie Hawkins (NARA) spoke on the past and current process of public comment on records schedules. Previously, NARA operated on an email/snail mail process. NARA would post to the federal register that they had proposed records schedules for review. If someone was interested, they would email NARA to request a copy of the schedule and appraisal memo. They would then have a certain period of time to make comments and send them to NARA. NARA would consider the comments and respond. This resulted in a lot of back and forth correspondence. The growing public interest in records schedules made this untenable and difficult to manage. In March 2019, NARA began using regulations.gov to make the appraisal memos and proposed schedules available for public comment. When the comment period closes, NARA reviews the comments carefully and posts a consolidated reply.

Having public input helps clarify retention periods and make sure that items are written clearly. People are interested in whether records should be permanent and whether retention periods are too long. Openness and transparency helps people see what the government is doing with their records. However, there is a challenge in most people not knowing what record schedules are and making incorrect assumptions about how records are maintained. There are misconceptions about the process in addition to the public sometimes having difficulty grasping the scope and complexity of the records the US government creates and the resources it takes to maintain, transfer, preserve, and provide access to them.

NARA has begun receiving more nuanced comments. People are more interested in temporary records and establishing good retention periods. NARA has a much broader group of people commenting, reflecting the expanding pool of people interested in preserving records.

Eric Emerson (South Carolina Department of Archives and History) presented a case study of how records scheduling issues combined with public expectations and government transparency led to the creation of specific schedules for the governor’s office and eventually led to the most successful transfer in South Carolina of gubernatorial papers since the advent of electronic records.

The SC Department of Archives and History had made multiple efforts to implement schedules for different governors but were ultimately unable to do so. When Governor Nikki Haley was elected, the agency expected her administration to be just as enthusiastic in their efforts to implement a retention schedule. However, after news media learned of and reported on the governor’s office improperly deleting emails, SCDAH used this as an opportunity. If the governor’s office would allow SCDAH to prepare a schedule, and if the governor would sign and implement it, SCDAH would vouch for the administration’s transparency. Governor Haley could then claim that her administration was the most transparent in South Carolina history.

The resulting transfer of the administration’s born-digital records to the agency is one of the most successful in the agency’s history.

Patrice McDermott (Government Information Watch) recognized the changes NARA made to the public commenting process on retention schedules as useful and “a great first step BUT.”

McDermott discussed several concerns. Records stakeholders vary wildly and may have their own organizational work to accomplish which complicates attempts to make the commenting process simple. There doesn’t exist an efficient way to notify them of disposition requests that might be of concern. How can schedules be presented so that they are understood by non-NARA readers or “public stakeholders”? The implementation of big buckets or large aggregation schedules can raise concerns about scheduling and removing records series that are included in the buckets. These schedules also don’t make it clear what listed items and files are different agencies and sub-agencies within the department. A public education effort is needed. Not knowing when an agency plans to destroy records means the public cannot request records in advance. If the schedules don’t have sufficient descriptions, the public doesn’t know what they’re commenting on. Agencies may not make it easy or possible to find information about how they manage records or what those records are, raising public distrust and suspicion.

NARA is critical as the gatekeeper and preserver of documents of historical and other significance to the American public. Many are committed to working with NARA to develop a process that will ensure an open, transparent, non-mysterious for public comment and involvement.

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