NARA overwhelmed, report says

"Information Management: Challenges in Managing and Preserving Electronic Records"

The torrent of electronic records being generated by federal agencies has overwhelmed the ability of the nation's official recordkeeper, the National Archives and Records Administration, to identify and preserve them, a congressional audit concludes.

While agencies churn out millions of electronic documents, e-mail messages, Web pages and databases that qualify as official records, NARA continues a policy of printing electronic records on paper to preserve them, the General Accounting Office said in a June 17 report to Reps. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) and Ernest Istook (R-Okla.).

But those that get printed represent only a fraction of the records agencies create.

GAO auditors said that less than 10 percent of the "mission-critical" data systems they examined at four agencies had been placed in an inventory, so neither agency officials nor archivists from NARA knew what government records the systems contained, how important they might be or how long they should be saved.

Thus, some records may be kept longer than necessary and others may be deleted while they are still needed for legal, fiscal or administrative purposes, the GAO report says.

In a separate study, NARA itself examined 11 agencies and found "instances where valuable permanent electronic records were not being appropriately transferred to NARA's archives" because they had not been appraised or identified as important enough to be deemed permanent records.

GAO auditors said NARA's "policies and processes on electronic records have not yet evolved to reflect the modern recordkeeping environment." And despite repeated efforts by NARA to clarify its rules on electronic records, the guidelines remain confusing.

NARA requires federal agencies to do two things: maintain an inventory of all agency information systems to identify items that qualify as records and "schedule" the records, which means determining how long they must be kept and how they must be disposed.

Those things are seldom done, the GAO report says.

Even when agencies and NARA are aware of electronic records, the rule for dealing with them, General Records Schedule 20, is inadequate, GAO officials said. GRS 20 permits the deletion of electronic records if paper copies have been printed for long-term or permanent storage.

But GRS 20 does not address what to do about such common electronic items as Web pages or PDF files.

E-records problems are unlikely to be fixed anytime soon, the report says. Agencies generally give low priority to records management and lack the technology tools to manage records effectively.

John Carlin, NARA chief, said the GAO report "recognizes the enormous challenges the federal government faces in managing and preserving electronic records. We agree that more must be done."

But poor electronic records management isn't just NARA's fault, Carlin said. Each agency head "is charged with the responsibility to make and preserve records" and maintain an active records management program, he noted in a letter to the GAO.

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