Ten-year NARA plan could jeopardize preservation of government documents

The National Archives and Records Administration faces a long and difficult path to preserving the federal government's burgeoning computer records according to a 10-year strategic plan published by the agency.

According to the plan which was required by the Government Performance and Results Act it will take five years for NARA to craft and for federal agencies to start putting in place standards for managing and maintaining electronic documents. Assuming agencies decide to install automated record-keeping systems it is unlikely that more than half of those systems would be in compliance with the standards by 2007.

In the interim important government records could disappear although NARA officials historians and others interested in preserving digital documents cannot define to what extent this may occur. Some say the plan is ambitious although others think NARA is not moving quickly enough.

"The strength of this plan is [that] it realistically appraises [NARA's] current situation and acknowledges the great uphill battle that [the agency] has " said Page Putnam Miller director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. "It's discouraging to think that we're so far behind and that in 1997 NARA is having to say this. On the other hand realistically if you're starting from this place I think it's going to be difficult to get to 50 percent [by 2007]."

Michael Miller director of records management programs with NARA said a major challenge the agency has given itself is to have guidelines for federal electronic record-keeping systems in place in enough time for agencies to develop and deploy new systems. One obstacle NARA faces he said is "we really don't have a good handle" on how well 334 federal offices are managing their records including electronic documents.

"One of the most important parts of this whole thing is [the] work we are going to be doing in [business process re-engineering] " Miller said. "There's some very basic information that we should have available at our fingertips so we can give Congress and the American people some idea how agencies are meeting their record-keeping responsibilities."

Plan Details

Meanwhile NARA needs to upgrade its own systems to handle a 300-fold increase in the number of electronic records that agencies will soon turn over for permanent storage. The plan calls for NARA to increase the capacity of its Archival Preservation System which is used to copy and preserve data files during the next fiscal year.

The plan also calls for the agency to have the capability to preserve multiple file formats including images by 2002.

In addition the agency "does not currently have the technological resources" to review a growing number of classified records that are being turned over to NARA in digital formats according to the plan.

"What makes this particularly problematic is this is not a static problem " said Steven Aftergood director of the Project on Government Secrecy with the Federation of American Scientists which is pushing for broad declassification of federal records. But Aftergood said coping with these records is more of a "logistical burden" than a technological one and that logistical burden should be solved by streamlining the process for making documents public.

Patrice McDermott an analyst with the watchdog group OMB Watch said NARA should speed up its timetable for establishing electronic-records policies or else risk losing vital documents. The plan she said "leaves a lot of time for things to fall through the cracks " and NARA "should push to get the resources necessary to get this [done] very quickly."

NARA's Miller said he agrees that missed records are "a possibility " but "we don't have any systematic hard evidence that there is a lot of stuff being lost." NARA has several projects under way and is in the planning stages to find the gaps in preservation of digital files he said.

Agencies have the option of printing out their electronic files and preserving them on paper a practice that is the subject of a pending lawsuit. "The difference of opinion may be more whether or not people feel these records should be maintained electronically " Miller said.

"I don't know that there's a one-size-fits-all-style answer " McDermott said but he added that NARA does not have the space to store more paper. The strategic plan notes that the agency is running out of shelf space the plan includes steps for expanding NARA's storage facilities.

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