NARA taken to task on electronic record-keeping

NARA taken to task on electronic record-keeping

GAO report says the archives agency doesn't have a handle on agencies' management capabilities

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

The management of electronic records varies across the government, but the National Archives and Records Administration does not have a sense of where most agencies stand, the General Accounting Office has reported.

NARA is aware of certain electronic record-keeping efforts under way within agencies, GAO said in a report issued last month, but 'it does not now have governmentwide data on the records management capabilities and programs of all federal agencies.'

NARA had planned to conduct a survey this year to collect governmentwide information on agency electronic records management programs. NARA, however, has postponed the survey until it completes a two-year business process re-engineering effort.

Archives officials believe the BPR project will improve the guidance and assistance NARA provides to agencies.

GAO, however, recommended that NARA not delay the survey, suggesting it would be useful in the BPR effort.

'Considering that the BPR effort would more likely result in changes that are practical and functional for the agencies if it included an assessment of where the agencies are in terms of [electronic records management], the survey should not be postponed,' GAO said in the report, National Archives: Preserving Electronic Records in an Era of Rapidly Changing Technology.

Survey goals

The survey will identify best practices at agencies. It also will collect information on program management and records management infrastructures, guidance and training, scheduling of records and implementation of such schedules, and electronic record-keeping.

In NARA's justification for postponing the survey, archivist John W. Carlin noted that despite the delay, the survey will be conducted.

The BPR project could change NARA's regulations and thereby affect the data that NARA would need to obtain from agencies, he said.

'The initial survey was planned to be completed over a two-year period, concluding after the BPR was well under way,' he said in a letter to GAO. 'Although the survey would collect some information about electronic record-keeping in the federal government, the focus was broader than simply electronic records.'

NARA, through its fast-track guidance program, has also been learning a lot about where agencies stand, Carlin said. The program seeks to provide guidance to agencies on immediate record-keeping needs.

The fast-track effort grew out of NARA's Electronic Records Work Group, which the agency created after the federal courts ruled that printing and then deleting an electronic record was not sufficient to ensure the record's appropriate preservation.

A recent appellate decision overturned the earlier ruling, and NARA is deciding how it should revise its guidance on the management of electronic records. GAO acknowledged that the issue of electronic records management is a difficult one for both NARA and agencies.

There has been an increase in the volume and variety of records, from word processing documents and database records to digital images and Web site pages.

'NARA must address some definitional problems such as what is an electronic record, when is an e-mail message a record, or when are Web site virtual records considered records,' GAO said in the report.

Furthermore, because the average life of most software is five years, NARA faces the difficult issue of long-term preservation and retention of electronic records, the report said.

The e-mail question

At the same time, agencies face the challenge of being the frontline record-keepers. Electronic records now are frequently created on PCs, but the record-keeping responsibilities are often overlooked by the staff members who create the records, the GAO report said.

'Agencies' employees send and receive huge volumes of e-mail in performing their official duties and responsibilities,' the report said. 'Agencies must determine which of these e-mail messages are records.'

Furthermore, records management also must compete for attention with other information technology priorities, most noticeably the year 2000 problem, GAO said.

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