Storage by the page, not the byte

It has been a couple of years since electronic records surpassed paper as the most common form of government documents, but when it comes to records management, most government agencies are still pushing paper.

According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), most federal agencies create documents in electronic formats, but when preserving them as "official records," print them out on paper and store them.

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

"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 officials 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 records being destroyed, according to the report. The problem is especially prevalent with regard to 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 execution of "decisions, procedures, operations or other activities of the government."

Agencies are required to preserve such records in order to "protect the rights of citizens," "ensure accountability of government" and "document the national experience."

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 reports.

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, according to NARA.

"The predominant e-mail policy is to print out e-mails that are considered records and to save the paper copies," the report states. But during the survey, it became clear that many e-mails that qualify as records are not being saved, said one former official who participated in the survey but asked not to be identified.

For example, the survey team learned that the Energy Department receives more than 1 million e-mail messages 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 official said. SRA, which conducted its part of the survey separately, reported that some of the agency officials interviewed blame NARA for the confusion that hangs over electronic records. "Some view NARA as leaving agencies on their own to fend for themselves," rather than developing clear guidance on which documents are records and how they should be handled, according to SRA. The company's findings were included in the report but identified separately.

Yet it is clear that only a portion of the blame belongs to NARA. Most agencies place little emphasis on recordkeeping or records management, whether electronic or paper-based, the report states. Recordkeeping staffs are small, budgets are low, and training is scant. As one agency official told the survey team, recordkeeping "is number 26 on our list of top 25 priorities."

That lack of attention to recordkeeping 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 reports. Agencies that have discussed electronic records management systems recently include the Environmental Protection Agency and the Treasury and Education departments.

Meanwhile, agencies persevere with paper. For most, searching for paper records is time-consuming but "generally successful," NARA reports. On the other hand, searching for electronic records is difficult because there are so few electronic records management systems.

Pressing matters

Outside pressure breeds better recordkeepers, the National Archives and Records Administration found in a recent survey.

Among the best recordkeepers are agencies that:

* Face the threat of litigation.

* Endure public scrutiny.

* Are closely watched by Congress.

* Receive many Freedom of Information Act requests.

* Need reliable access to records for their daily operations.

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