Electronic records baffle agencies

A survey of more than 150 federal agencies and departments concludes that most agencies are still baffled by electronic records.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration, most federal agencies create documents in electronic formats, but when preserving them as official records, print them on paper and put them into storage.

"Government employees do not know how to solve the problem of electronic records -- whether the electronic information they create constitutes records and, if so, what to do with the records," NARA said in a report written with help from information technology firm SRA International Inc.

Widespread uncertainty about whether electronic documents are "official records" leads to many of them being destroyed, the report said. The problem is especially prevalent with e-mail messages.

According to NARA, the term "records" applies to a vast array of documents -- from books and maps to photographs and "other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics." Records document the "transaction of public business," including the development of policies and the carrying out of "decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the government."

But as more of the national experience is planned and executed electronically, more of its documentation is being lost.

"Electronic files that qualify as records, particularly in the form of e-mail, and also word processing and spreadsheet documents, are not being kept at all as records in many cases," NARA reported.

The use of e-mail for official business "has increased exponentially," according to the report, but "e-mail is generally not captured" in recordkeeping systems.

"Employees lack guidance and knowledge concerning how to identify electronic records and what to do with them" once they have been identified, NARA said.

"The predominant e-mail policy is to print out e-mails that are considered records and to save the paper copies," according to the report. But during the survey it became clear that many e-mails that qualify as records are not being saved, one survey participant said.

For example, the survey team learned that the Energy Department receives more than a million e-mails a day. That volume makes it impossible for the agency to comply with its own policy of printing and saving e-mails that qualify as records, the survey participant said.

SRA, which conducted its part of the survey separately, reported that some agency officials blame NARA for the confusion. "Some view NARA as leaving agencies on their own to fend for themselves," rather than developing clear guidance regarding which documents are records and how they should be handled.

But the report showed only a portion of the blame belongs to NARA. Most agencies place little emphasis on recordkeeping or records management -- electronic or paper, the report says. Recordkeeping staffs are small, budgets are low and training is scant. As one agency official told the survey team, record keeping "is No. 26 on our list of top 25 priorities."

Such lack of attention can cause big problems. In May, for example, the FBI's inability to find records from the Oklahoma City bombing investigation caused a month-long delay in the execution of convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh

Although most agencies lack electronic records management systems, a number of agencies are beginning to develop plans for them, NARA reported. Agencies that recently have discussed electronic records management systems include the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Treasury and Education.

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