Agencies admit to bad records management

Four agencies ranked themselves at high risk in a survey

Four federal departments — Agriculture, Education, Justice and Transportation -- rated themselves at high risk of failing to manage and preserve official records in 2010, according to a mandatory self-assessment survey of 270 agencies released by the National Archives and Records Administration.

Sixteen departments received aggregate scores indicating moderate risk of being ineffective in managing records, NARA said in the March 2 report. None of the departments showed low risk.

On the whole, the study revealed that federal departments and agencies are struggling with their records management duties, especially for electronic records, with too few staff and resources dedicated for that purpose, NARA said.

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“The responses indicate that many agencies are not managing the disposition of their records properly or, in some cases, they are saving their records but not taking the necessary steps to ensure that they can be retrieved, read, or interpreted,” the report said.

A key problem is little staff attention paid to records management. Governmentwide, 3,174 employees are assigned to records management responsibilities on a full-time basis, which is one records manager for every 1,460 employees. However, NARA noted that some of those recordkeeping employees also handle other duties and also do not have sufficient funding, guidance or training to manage the records appropriately.

Electronic records and e-mail preservation pose persistent problems, the survey indicated. Many agencies do not ensure that e-mails are preserved consistently and do not monitor compliance. Furthermore, many agencies use inappropriate preservation strategies, such as using system backup as a means of preservation, or printing e-mails on paper.

“These findings confirm that management of electronic mail remains the most troubling issue,” NARA said in the report. “Only a few agencies have a DOD 5015.2 compliant electronic record-keeping system. Many agencies, even if they have implemented an electronic record-keeping system, are not able to use it to capture e-mail messages because the record-keeping system and the e-mail systems are incompatible.”

NARA began requiring the self-assessments in 2009. For the 2010 survey, while 93 percent of the 270 agencies responded, a few did not, including the Office of Management and Budget.

The archives agency took some steps to validate the self-assessment findings. For example, in one case where agencies indicated they had filed planning documents, NARA verified whether they had done so. However, NARA in most cases accepted the agencies’ scoring of their own progress, the report said, and it asserted the results are generally accurate.

The 270 agencies assessed their records management on a 100-point scale, with scores over 90 indicating low risk, between 60 and 90 moderate risk, and below 60 high risk. In addition to agency scores, departmental aggregate scores were calculated for each department.

The high-risk departments were Education, with a score of 49 out of 100; Agriculture, with 52; Justice, with 56; and Transportation, with 59. The most favorable scores — while still being considered moderate risk — were for the White House, which scored 70; and the departments of Labor, 73; Veterans Affairs, 76; Interior, 87; and State, 87.

At the agency level, a number of agencies rated themselves at low risk. At Interior, eight of the 12 agencies that responded scored themselves in the 90 to 100 range. The Internal Revenue Service rated itself a 93, and the Office of Job Corps rated itself 97.

NARA distributed the survey on a pilot basis in 2009, and it revised the survey in 2010. The  NARA website today had a link to the 2009 survey, but the link was broken.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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