Election time is upon us. Regardless of the winner, the executive branch will undergo a transition from one administration to another. Such transitions inevitably trigger an exodus of agency officials — and concerns over the completeness and efficacy of agencies’ document preservation and archiving efforts.
If you're new to these issues, here's a great backgrounder on Executive branch records preservation and Congressional oversight from our friends at Co-Equal.
Last week, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) began sharing resources for senior officials as the transition approaches, that may be useful for you to review. Do you have concerns regarding documents and information requested by your committee or member you have not yet received, or about the fate of documents not yet requested? Here are some steps you can take:
1. Remind the agency of their responsibilities, and of any outstanding requests.
A letter to the agency head and/or general counsel can be a good vehicle to remind them of documents and information you have requested but have not yet received. You can also use such letters as opportunities to request briefings on the status of those requests, and any efforts to ensure the material in question is either produced, or preserved through the transition period.
2. Request a briefing with your agency’s records compliance official.
At each agency, the Senior Agency Official for Records Management (SAORM) is responsible for ensuring that his or her organization complies with federal records management statutes, regulations, NARA policy, and OMB policy. You can ask to receive a briefing from the SAORM at the agency/ies you oversee on their efforts and concerns with respect to the transition period and departing senior officials.
Specifically, you can request a commitment from your agency SAORM to provide your committee with copies of all archive lists and document removal requests for all political appointees and non-career SES employees who depart that agency between Election Day and Inauguration Day.
Don’t know who the SAORM is at the agency/ies you oversee? Here is a directory from NARA.
Questions to ask your agency’s records compliance official:
- What is your plan to ensure your agency’s records are properly preserved through the transition period?
- How does your plan address the proper preservation of electronic records that have been problematic for agencies in recent years, like email, including from personal email accounts; text messages; and communications over encrypted apps?
- Confirm the agency has systems to preserve Capstone, or similar, versions of senior official email files.
- Confirm the agency has been in communication with NARA.
- What concerns do you have or what challenges do you face while ensuring the agency adheres to all rules, regulations, policies and guidance regarding records retention?
- How can Congress support your efforts to ensure a transition between administrations and the departure of agency officials is not accompanied by the improper loss of official records and information?
- Will you return, shortly after the January 2021 inauguration, to brief us on how your agency executed transition records management?
- How will the agency address outstanding records requests from Congress?
3. Request a briefing with your agency’s Inspector General.
IGs are responsible for a couple important accountability checks related to the transition: First, an IG’s reporting hotline should be an avenue for employees to share concerns if they learn documents and information are being destroyed, removed or altered. Second, IGs can scrutinize the agency’s transition plans and execution.
Questions to ask your agency IG:
- Are you aware of any concerns about document destruction or violations of preservation orders?
- What steps have you taken to ensure you know of any concerns?
- Are you conducting, or would you consider, an effort to review or audit the agency’s transition process?
4. Let agency employees know you want to hear about document preservation concerns.
Tell your contacts within the agency you want to be informed if they learn of any failures to preserve official records, or attempts to remove or destroy records which by law must be preserved. If possible, coordinate with your communications staff to include a link on your committee or member website for agency officials to report concerns anonymously.
Have a better idea to ensure documents and information are preserved through the transition? Let us know! Email [email protected].