GAO: E-records overwhelm NARA

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

The torrent of electronic records 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 concluded.

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 e-records to preserve them, according to a General Accounting Office report issued June 17 to Reps. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) and Ernest Istook (R-Okla.).

But e-records that are 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 NARA archivists 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 said.

In a separate study, NARA examined 11 agencies and found "instances where valuable permanent e-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 e-records, the guidelines remain confusing.

"Electronic records are really problematic," said Bruce Craig, director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History.

The volume of e-records alone is a problem — the Clinton administration produced some 40 million e-mail records that will take years to sort and catalog, he said.

Compounding that, each agency currently makes its own rules regarding e-records retention, so some agencies keep many e-records, while other agencies — fearing future disclosures of embarrassing information — elect to keep far fewer, he said.

Even when e-records are preserved, they are often difficult to examine for needed information. Search engines capable of reading message contents, rather than just the subject line, are only in the experimental stage, Craig said.

"Everyone recognizes we're going to have to deal with e-records," he said. But no one yet knows exactly how to do it.

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 destroyed.

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, according to the report. Agencies generally give low priority to records management and lack the technology tools to manage records effectively.

U.S. Archivist 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 e-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 GAO.

***

E-records endangered

A General Accounting Office review has concluded that lax attention paid to preserving electronic records puts them at peril. Government agencies fail to keep e-records inventories and the National Archives and Records Administration has failed to develop and enforce clear rules on e-record preservation the report said. As a result:

* Historically valuable e-records are not being identified and sent to NARA for safekeeping.

* Valuable e-records may be at risk of loss.

* Records management guidance is inadequate given today's technology.

* Records management is a low priority for most agencies.

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