Agency records need better handling

NARA report finds agencies making improvements to records management, but more progress is needed.

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Federal agencies are taking an inconsistent approach to preserving official emails and other electronic records, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, partly as a result of a disconnect between the agency officers in charge of complying with NARA directives and the IT personnel who design agency information systems.

The report comes as agencies face deadlines for electronic records management under a 2012 directive from the Office of Management and Budget and NARA. By the end of 2013, agencies are required to develop plans to begin the transition to the electronic management of digital records. By the end of 2016, agencies must be managing their email records electronically, using systems that support NARA's records management requirements. Agencies will be required to manage permanent electronic records using electronic systems, "to the fullest extent possible," by the end of 2019.

According to the NARA report, issued July 29, more than two-thirds of agencies report taking steps to improve the integrity and usability of electronic records, , including designating an agency official at the assistant secretary level (or equivalent) to take responsibility for records management. But fewer are creating their own training materials or requiring senior career officials and political appointees to receive instruction on managing records under their direct control.

The report is based on the self-assessments of 241 government entities, from cabinet-level agencies, to bureaus, sub-agencies, military commands, and independent agencies. Each agency was assessed a risk factor based on its compliance with NARA's records management framework, of which electronic records are a significant part. The agencies were graded as low risk, moderate risk, and high risk. It's not clear from the report what the risk levels indicate, outside of NARA compliance.

Some of the highest risk respondents include the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the U.S. Army Materiel Command and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for setting policy direction in this area, itself barely missed being labeled "high risk," scoring 64 out of 100 on the NARA assessment.

A few agencies got perfect scores of 100: the U.S. Secret Service, the Government Accountability Office, the Bureau of Reclamation, and top-level operations at the State Department.

While the majority of agencies appear to be keeping up with the timetable spelled out in the 2012 directive, the report states that "the percentage of agencies answering 'no,' particularly in regard to electronic records, remains high." Only 59 percent of agencies have developed the means to transfer electronic records and metadata to systems that are NARA compliant and allow for information retrieval, while 57 percent of agencies report having records management functionality built into email and other electronic information systems. Part of the issue appears to be a lack of coordination between records management staff and IT. Some issues here include lack of upper management support for coordinating IT and records management, lack of IT expertise among records managers, agency reorganizations, and outright exclusion from design and development efforts by IT and program staff.

NARA is moving to rectify the "slow or inconsistent adoption of electronic recordkeeping solutions" with some advice of its own. It plans to provide guidance to agencies to transfer emails and other electronic records in formats that comply with NARA's storage guidelines. It's also planning to "identify a government wide analytical tool" to measure compliance with record management directive. In a July 15 solicitation, NARA invited vendors to present possible automated electronic record management solutions.

While NARA said it is not going to mandate automated management solutions, it does want to be a clearinghouse for information on tools agencies can use to comply with records management. NARA is interested in more than just email – it's looking for information on storing audio, structured data from government databases, social media postings, text documents, graphical presentations and other file formats. NARA will host an "industry day" Sept. 10 for vendors at its Washington, D.C., headquarters to dig deeper into the challenges of the upcoming deadlines and to lay out the terms of a request for information for business opportunities in records management.

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