NARA fees miff feds

A new National Archives and Records Administration program that requires agencies to pay for storage and retrieval of paper records has angered some agencies, threatening NARA's upgrade to its storage and retrieval system.

Under the federal records center reimbursable program, which began Oct. 1, NARA began charging agencies to store, retrieve and dispose of records. NARA estimates the program will bring it $92 million a year in storage and retrieval fees. The amount charged to each agency varies, depending on the amount of space required to store the agency's records and how many requests an agency makes for accessing and disposing of its records.

NARA is discussing plans to use a portion of the money to begin developing ways to store electronic records, which have become increasingly important as agencies use computers to send e-mail messages and create memos and reports. Most centers are not yet equipped to provide this capability.

But the fees have irritated numerous agencies, especially because NARA's storage and retrieval services are poor, said John Vasca, a records policy manager with the CIA and spokesman for the Federal Information and Records Managers Council. Vasca said council members have told him NARA sometimes takes days to retrieve records agencies have requested.

"If they are going to be a service-type operation, they are going to have to function the way the private sector does," Vasca said. "This program obviously has not gone over well with the federal agencies and there is a mad rush to place their records with commercial facilities because they are not pleased with the changes and the services they have gotten from NARA in the past."

NARA receives 12 million requests for documents each year from the 70 agencies that use the centers. Ten million requests come from 10 agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the Defense Department, the Social Security Administration and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Environmental Protection Agency is one of the agencies considering hiring a private firm to store records. Rachel Van Wingen, agency records officer at the EPA, said the agency does not want to pay for inferior storage services. If numerous agencies pull their records out of NARA, she added, it could threaten the viability of the records centers.

"I don't think sufficient thought has been given to how this affects the public's ability to get access in the future, how it will affect the preservation of information," she said. "What happens if everybody pulls out of federal record centers and they go away or are so poorly financed by those that remain that they can't provide adequate service?"

The Federal Trade Commission already has decided to pull its records, but NARA has told the agency it must pay a $22,000 fee before it can take its records out of storage. FTC cannot afford to pay the fee and believes it should not be required to do so, said John Graubert, an FTC lawyer. NARA and FTC lawyers are trying to reach an agreement, he said.

Other agencies are concerned about how the program will affect electronic record storage. NARA has not developed separate charges for electronic record storage under the program, said Bette Behal, Agriculture Department records officer. "Generally any electronic records we turn over to NARA would be permanent historical records," she said. How NARA will handle electronic records and in what format they will be stored is "still shaking out," she said.

NARA started the program because it did not have enough money to continue operating the records centers, said Chip Stovel, director of NARA's Washington National Records Center. "Simply, it was a cost factor," Stovel said. "The cost of running the records centers, especially the space, was cutting into our personnel funds and our ability to provide services. We simply couldn't afford to keep operating the same way."

But Stovel said NARA must improve services to keep agencies' business and to ensure it has the funds to develop the services for electronic records.

"This is a business environment now, [and] our customers have choices," he said. "If they don't like the service they will go elsewhere."

NARA plans to build a World Wide Web application that will enable agencies to file online requests for records instead of using phone, fax and e-mail. This feature, which will roll out over the next three months, will streamline the back-end systems at NARA so that the transactions can be processed faster, said David Weinberg, program manager for the reimbursable program. "We need to roll out something immediately because it shows our customers that NARA is serious about change," Weinberg said.

"The upside of all this is that it is an attempt on the part of government to do more 'pay as you go funding' for its work," said Rick Barry, principal of Barry Associates, Arlington, Va. "The downside is the possibility that some in the private sector might be able to under price [NARA]."

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