Head back to drawing board

The National Archives and Records Administration has run smack dab into electronic reality: It simply does not have the resources to collect, store and manage the 36 billion e-mail messages and documents the government generates every year.

NARA's solution, as set out in a draft report released last month, is to ask individual agencies to focus on storing the most important records first — those that establish agency accountability, protect citizens' rights and document the national experience. NARA's role, according to the plan, is to act more as a facilitator by advising agencies on what to preserve but not how to preserve it; offering records management guidance and training; and conducting inspections and evaluations.

Whether this approach will work is debatable. In the past, government guidance issued without any authority to back it up with penalties or rewards typically fell by the wayside. Agencies simply ignore those requirements that have little consequences. That's only natural.

But the problem here is what is at stake. As NARA points out in its report, the most important electronic documents — those that outline decision-making processes for program policies and those that can hold agencies accountable for their actions as recorded in the electronic documents — have disappeared and continue to do so. Many agencies now post reports in electronic form only. Once those reports are deleted from the agency's Web site or intranet, they are gone forever.

NARA officials have struggled for years to develop a workable policy for electronic document storage and have settled on a solution that, at best, allows for inconsistency. That's not good enough. Records will continue to be lost, including electronic information embedded in the documents that could prove to be valuable to historians, researchers and journalists.

No doubt, solving the problem presents a monumental challenge for NARA. But officials may need to go back to the drawing board.

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