Transparency and its Discontents

The denizens of Twitter like to dump on Matt Yglesias, blogger and executive editor at Vox.com, but said dumping is not always warranted. Tendencies to oversimplify and be contrarian for the sake of it aside, he does write not a few pieces that do provide some good insight into the political environment. His latest piece, “Against Transparency”, ain’t one of those, however:

Treating email as public by default rather than private like phone calls does not serve the public interest. Rather than public servants communicating with the best tool available for communication purposes, they’re communicating with an arbitrary legal distinction in mind.

[…]

Government secrecy can be, and in some ways is, out of control. But a private conversation to facilitate a frank exchange of ideas is not the same as a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia. We need to let public officials talk to each other — and to their professional contacts outside the government — in ways that are both honest and technologically modern.

argumentbadfeelbad
God bless the internet.

As Eira Tansey, who graciously looked this post over for me (Thanks Eira!), points out, this is just the latest in a subtle, but real, trend among contrarian-type thinkpiece authors, in which  the era of open government is lamented as impeding government from functioning properly. (See this recent article in The Atlantic for another example of this genre; mourning the demise of party machines is a nice touch.) This one, however, hits a bit more home, for obvious reasons. For more explication of why this article raises my records management hackles, follow me past the jump.

Continue reading “Transparency and its Discontents”

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Session 204: Why You’re Already A Records Manager…

[Editor’s Note: Geof Huth and I will be recapping this talk as a Google Hangout for the RMRT
sometime in the near future! In the meantime, please enjoy this extremely thorough recap by Melissa Torres. Thanks Melissa!–Brad]

[Editor’s Note 2: I wanted the title of this session to be “You May Already Be A Records Manager”, complete with oversized check and Geof as Ed McMahon. That got vetoed for some reason…–Brad]

Why You’re Already a Records Manager and Should be Happy About That

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One of Brad’s favorite GIFs of all time, featured prominently in the presentation

Speakers: Geof Huth and Brad Houston

2pm, August 4, Salon E, Session 204

This session focused on government, academic, and corporate sector records management. Continue reading “Session 204: Why You’re Already A Records Manager…”

Records Managers: Not Making This Stuff Up, Part the Billionth

So! The Office of the Inspector General released its report on Hillary Clinton’s emails today. Perhaps you’d heard about it.

The report itself is here (Warning: major TL;DR alert). It reads like a litany of “everything that can go wrong with a digital records management program”–poor communication, lack of executive buy-in, technology not up to the job of meeting requirements– and my plan is to break down the whole thing at some point to take a closer look at what happened from a purely records management standpoint. But in light of Eira’s excellent post on institutional silences and the digital dark ages, I wanted to quickly hit one paragraph that jumped out at me:

Two staff in S/ES-IRM reported to OIG that, in late 2010, they each discussed their concerns about Secretary Clinton’s use of a personal email account in separate meetings with the then-Director of S/ES-IRM. In one meeting, one staff member raised concerns that information sent and received on Secretary Clinton’s account could contain Federal records that needed to be preserved in order to satisfy Federal recordkeeping requirements. According to the staff member, the Director stated that the Secretary’s personal system had been reviewed and approved by Department legal staff and that the matter was not to be discussed any further. As previously noted, OIG found no evidence that staff in the Office of the Legal Adviser reviewed or approved Secretary Clinton’s personal system. According to the other S/ES-IRM staff member who raised concerns about the server, the Director stated that the mission of S/ES-IRM is to support the Secretary and instructed the staff never to speak of the Secretary’s personal email system again.

Holy moly. I am simultaneously astonished and not at all surprised that this conversation happened. Without attempting to divine the source of this supposed gag order or the motivation behind it, there is at minimum a failure to communicate happening here, and in all likelihood a deeply ingrained culture of subordination. Two employees, rightly concerned that use of a personal email account posed a recordkeeping and security risk, were specifically told that they were there “to support the Secretary”, and as a result questioning her use of personal email was anathema. That is really an incredible directive, if substantiated. I would argue that pointing out vulnerabilities in information security and governance IS supporting the Secretary (by, say, helping her avoid a prolonged investigation into her email management practices during an election year), but that’s just me.

And yet… what do you even DO in this case as a records manager? In a lot of institutions records managers are so far down the totem pole that there’s not a lot of pushing back to be done if a C-level staffer doesn’t want to follow records management directives to the letter. It’s easier to stand up to your negligent or reluctant official if you’re based out of the Legal department (and even easier if you are yourself a lawyer), but for a records manager based out of an administrative department, or the library? How do you make the case for good records practices when you have been explicitly told not to pursue it? How far do you stick your neck out for the sake of the historical record and transparency, vs. the short-term interests of your institution? Particularly if, as in so many cases, the records law which you are following has no real penalty for non-compliance other than the hypothetical/tangential “you might get sued”?

I don’t have an answer to any of the above questions. I’ve struggled with the right level of aggressiveness in pursuing records of high-level officials at my own institution, and have almost certainly lost some key electronic records being kept on a personal hard drive or in an email account because of it. (Elsewhere in the report records staff reports “not feeling comfortable” directing the Secretary to use the internal records system and looking for an automatic system to capture the records; I feel this anxiety acutely.) In this *particular* case Secretary Clinton released (most of) the emails after the fact, so the damage to transparency and the historical record is perhaps not as great as it could have been. In other cases? Who knows what’s being lost because the records manager is not as much in control as he/she would like to be.

These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night, because I am an enormous nerd and am kept awake by records management questions. (Well, that and a one-year-old baby.)

A (probably doomed) attempt to desensationalize Public Records reporting

So, I suspect that Journalists on a political beat pay more attention to potential changes in public records law than is warranted by public interest in the topic. This is not altogether surprising– Freedom of Information-like acts have a direct impact on journalists’ ability to do their jobs properly by collecting key information about the actions of state government and bureaucracy. Because of this impact on their livelihoods, however, stories about potential restrictions to public records access tend to be… um… a bit overexcited. We saw this on this very blog a few years ago with the Franklin County Brouhaha, and now we’re seeing it again closer to my own home with some stories about a change to retention schedules in Wisconsin.

On the one hand, great! Happy to see Public Records Law and retention scheduling in the news. On the other hand, both of these stories get a lot wrong about what is really going on in this situation. If only there were someone on a group blog who was informed about how Records Retention and Disposition worked in the State of Wisconsin…Hmm… Well, if there is such information I bet it’s past the jump.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am technically an employee of the State of Wisconsin, and while the schedule mentioned in these stories does not apply to UW, I do work with the Public Records Board to approve our local schedules. Because of that position I am also not going to comment on the political implications of these retention changes. (Much.)

Continue reading “A (probably doomed) attempt to desensationalize Public Records reporting”

Getting Started on Records Scheduling

There was a post on SAA’s College and University Archives listserv (subscriber only, sorry) this week about a problem that is all too common in many of our institutions: The Archives is expected to keep *everything* and is not given sufficient guidance/resources to do so. The author of this post was new to SAA and wanted to see some examples of what schedules people are using for both permanent and temporary records, to give him, at least, some guidance on how to start managing the mess he inherited. Seems reasonable!

Lots of good advice and examples followed, including at least one person suggesting that this was an opportunity to advocate for more storage space! My own response, which I’m adapting for this post, is more along the lines of the famous aphorism: “Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day; light a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life.” (Wait… that’s not right. Apologies to the late great Terry Pratchett.) In other words, what should people be *thinking* about when they think about building out new records schedules?

Well, there could be (and are) whole courses on this topic. There are, in fact, proposed post series on this topic on this very blog. So this post is not so much a “comprehensive schedule-building how-to” as a “things to consider as you get started”. Even that could be way longer than I would like, so I’m going to try to shorten further by using bullet points. Ready? Follow me after the jump…

Continue reading “Getting Started on Records Scheduling”

More on Tom Brady’s Records Management: Twitter Speaks out!

So a few months ago I wrote about Tom Brady’s spoliation issues, which is still one of my favorite posts on here, because, well, Tom Brady Schadenfreude. Since then, Things Have Happened: Tom Brady’s appeal was denied, emails that *were* discovered were released, and the impact of destroying that phone on the severity of Brady’s penalty was affirmed. As it turns out, archivists on Twitter Have Opinions on this issue, which I have helpfully Storified for you below. The whole conversation is worth a look. Please feel free to share your opinion on this in the comments!

ETA: Blerg, WordPress won’t let me embed the Storify in here. The link is here.

And now: Football!

deflate1It is not really much of a secret that I am not a fan of New England Patriots QB Tom Brady.  Those of you who follow this blog and are also fans of American Football (I am sure at least some of you exist) are undoubtedly aware of the #deflategate fracas surrounding the Patriots’ game vs. the Indianapolis Colts during last season’s playoffs. (For those of you who weren’t, the TL;DR version: The Patriots were accused playing with underinflated balls, which makes them easier to handle and catch and makes a material difference because each team brings its own balls to games.) An investigation ensued, the NFL released a report indicating that it was “more probable than not” that the balls were deflated on purpose and with Brady’s knowledge, and yesterday Mr. Brady was suspended without pay for 4 games for the 2015 season due to his role in the affair. I may or may not have declared myself “the happiest boy in the world” to my wife last night upon hearing this news.

But this post is not about Brady Schadenfreude! (Well, *mostly* not.) It is about the following nugget from the NFL’s official statement about the case:

Another important consideration identified in the Policy is ‘the extent to which the club and relevant individuals cooperated with the investigation.’ The Wells report identifies two significant failures in this respect. The first involves the refusal by the club’s attorneys to make Mr. McNally available for an additional interview, despite numerous requests by Mr. Wells and a cautionary note in writing of the club’s obligation to cooperate in the investigation. The second was the failure of Tom Brady to produce any electronic evidence (emails, texts, etc.), despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information. Although we do not hold the club directly responsible for Mr. Brady’s refusal to cooperate, it remains significant that the quarterback of the team failed to cooperate fully with the investigation.

It’s a records management issue (Sort of)! I really am the happiest boy in the world. Tom Brady was asked to turn over electronic documents to help the NFL determine his responsibility in this matter, he refused to do so, and the NFL factored that in to his eventual punishment. Does that sound like sanctions for spoliation to anyone else? It sure does to me.

Now, a few caveats here: The proceedings were part of a conduct investigation strictly internal to the NFL, rather than a civil or criminal suit in open court. There was likely no formal discovery request, no “meet-and-confer” requirement, and the “Safe Harbor” rule probably wouldn’t have applied to (or protected) Brady in this case. But in its effects, this is basically the same– because Brady was unwilling to produce evidence as requested by the NFL, the investigating body made an assumption that the missing evidence would be materially harmful to his case, and altered the punishment accordingly. It was “a culpable failure to preserve and produce relevant electronically stored information, and [presented] a reasonable probability that the loss of the evidence has materially prejudiced the adverse party” , which the Sedona Principles explicitly calls out as reasons for courts to consider spoliation sanctions.

The upshot of all of this: when you’re talking to your “front line” employees, name-dropping Zubulake and the Sedona Conference isn’t going to mean much to them in terms of legal responsibilities to produce electronically stored information and/or destroy records according to defined retention schedules. Name dropping Tom Brady, on the other hand, may be another story. “Tom Brady’s punishment was made more severe by his failure to cough up emails and text” seems likely to at least get their attention, and lets you draw direct connections to the records they are producing and maintaining for your organization.

Yes, it’s true that the “sanction” in this case is based on the NFL’s internal judgment rather than the Federal Rules of Evidence, and so the parallel isn’t exact. If your employees know enough to point this out, a) I’m impressed, and b) you do need to have an explanation of how the law re: their public records and/or discovery responsibilities differ. That said, I won’t tell if you won’t.

FERPA, Defensible Deletion, and Newsaliens with Opinions

So! I meant to write a post about the shenanigans at University of Oregon. That moment passed because of procrastination. (Though you can read this post from Librarian Shipwreck that I wish I had written about it.)

THEN, I was going to write a post about Hillary Clinton’s email and the massive failure of records management happening there. Again, unfortunately, procrastination got the better of me. Besides, do we really need ANOTHER Hot Take on HRC’s email? (Though the tl;dr version of what I would have written there: STOP DOING THIS POLITICIANS, USE THE EMAIL SERVER WITH WHICH YOU ARE PROVIDED.)

Luckily, the New Republic helped me out with this piece on Yale deleting its admission records, so I DO have something topical to talk about after all! Lucky you (H/T Sam Winn):

You just got lawyered.

That was the takeaway from Yale Law School Dean Robert Post’s annual “State of the School” address last Tuesday. In frank terms, he explained that students who requested access to their educational records under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) would no longer be receiving the fat file they expected. To avoid being forced to hand over a wide range of documents in response to a flood of recent student requests, the school had decided to destroy its student admissions evaluation records along with any notations made by the career development office in individual student files.

Help the RMRT build educational offerings for archivists!

[Crossposted from the RMRT listserv. If you’re reading this and know someone else who’d be interested in presenting or developing, send ’em our way!]

Happy new year! As mentioned in the most recent RMRT newsletter, one of the steering committee’s priorities for this year is to expand on the success of our October “Records Management for Archivists” webinar and increase the number and scope of educational offerings. To that end, we’re looking for help from you, our members, to share your knowledge and experience with the rest of the roundtable (and other interested SAA members) in the form of some webinars on more specialized topics. We’re already updating the 2-day workshop on Records Management for Archivists to be offered in March (see http://saa.archivists.org/events/records-management-for-archivists-1580/582/ for details), but as with the original webinar, we’re especially interested in producing content in that format to make educational materials available at relatively low cost  to a wider group of archivists/RMs on their own time.

So, at the moment we’re looking for a few things:

1) Content Presenters. We’re looking for people here who are interested in being the voice behind the webinars, which includes enough familiarity with the content to answer questions the day of the presentation. RMRT members would help put together the proposal to the Education Committee and provide assistance with program development (see below).  Some suggested topics we received include:

  • ​​Records Management Outreach and Training
  • Retention Schedule Development
  • Managing Active Electronic Records
  • Developing RM Policies
  • RM in specific settings (Educational, Business, etc.)

2) Content Developers. Anne Marie Phillips and I were helped greatly on the RM for Archivists webinar by Farrell and Christie’s contributions, and we would like to be able to offer the same assistance to any potential presenters. Possible tasks in this role include helping to write slides or other content, reviewing presentations for accuracy or clarity, providing a run-through audience, etc. This is a great way to get involved in the process if the presenter limelight isn’t for you.
3) Content Ideas. ​If you have questions about or expertise in a topic not mentioned above, we want to hear about it! Even if it’s just something you want to learn more about but don’t want to present on, let us know– we can always add to the above list in our call for presenters or developers.

Working on a webinar is a great way to get involved in SAA and the RMRT, add to your resume, and share your knowledge with your colleagues. If you are interested in contributing to any of the above three pools, please email me, Beth Cron, or Christie Peterson. We look forward to hearing from you!

For Your Consideration: Adjusting the level of Archival (and RM) appraisal

A signal boost to this important post on NDIIPP’s The Signal blog, in which Meg Phillips discusses the impact of distant reading/text mining/computational analysis on the nature of archival appraisal (and, incidentally, the records management scheduling that supports same). The key passage, in my opinion, is the following:

The interesting thing about these questions is that the answersmay rely on the presence of records that would clearly be temporary if judged on their individual merits. Consider email messages like “Really sick today – not coming in” or a message from the executive of a  regulated company saying “Want to meet for lunch?” to a government policymaker. In the aggregate, the patterns of these messages  may paint a picture of disease spread or the inner workings of access and influence in government.  Those are exactly the kinds of messages traditional archival practice would try to cull. In these cases, appraising an entire corpus of records as permanent would support distant reading much better.  The informational value of the whole corpus cannot be captured by selecting just the records with individual value.

If we adjusted practice to support more distant reading, archivists would still do appraisal, deciding what is worth permanent preservation.  We would just be doing it at a different level of granularity – appraising the research value of an entire email system, SharePoint site or social media account, for example.

Yee-ikes. In a way, this isn’t new– the Capstone plan for dealing with email of the top administration of federal agencies is kind of based on the same principle, for example– but this is talking about the issue at an entirely different scale. Providing permanent access to the entirety of an organization’s information ecosystem seems like it would be a herculean task logistically, not to mention the privacy/confidentiality concerns that would come into play. Plus, I wonder if maintaining a system in its entirety would have a deleterious effect on the ability of researchers who DO still want to do close reading of individual documents to find what they’re looking for. Quicker searching and location of documents by the records creator is, after all, on of our profession’s major selling points for why people should practice records management. (To be fair, Meg does acknowledge these difficulties in her post.)

On the other hand, the overall point is a good one, and sort of gets to the heart of one of the major archival appraisal arguments: “Who are WE to determine what it is that future researchers will find useful?” Even in our own analog materials here at UWM, we have a number of records in our collections that I as a records manager would recommend be destroyed if they were being produced today–except that those records get a LOT of use from researchers looking for historical context. So maybe this shift is just proof of cycles in Archival and RM practice.  In any case, a lot to chew on– Please weigh in on the comments there or here.

Oh, also, an aside from Meg’s post: “Incidentally, on a practical level this level of appraisal might also lead to disposition instructions that are easier for creating offices to carry out.” Possibly THAT is the key point, rather than the above.