Beat the E-Records Glut: Agencies dig in to get control of a mounting pile of e-records

It's no secret that agencies face a growing mountain of electronic records, but they don't have to wind up buried beneath it.

'There's been an enormous explosion of electronic information within the government in the last several years,' said National Archives and Records Administration deputy archivist Lewis Bellardo.

In a series of studies in recent years, the Government Accountability Office has found that most electronic records remain unscheduled and their disposition has not been determined.

'Complex electronic records are increasingly being created in a decentralized environment and in volumes that make it difficult to organize them and make them accessible,' GAO said in a report last year.

And in a draft report issued in June, the Interagency Committee on Government Information's Electronic Records Policy Working Group catalogued the barriers to effective management of government e-records:
  • hey are not being managed as agency business assets.

  • Records management is not viewed as critical to agency missions.

  • Marginal support for records management has led to a lack of training tools and guidance.

  • Records management and IT are poorly integrated within federal agencies.

On the face of it, it all seems pretty grim.

But U.S. archivist John Carlin, head of NARA, sees light on horizon.

'There isn't any question that there are real challenges,' he said. 'But I think we're making a lot of progress.'

Carlin pointed, for example, to the rising profile of agency records managers.

'When I started some nine-plus years ago, the records manager at many agencies was buried so far down that the head of the agency had no idea who that person was,' he said. 'But the picture today is hugely different. The government is starting to wake up to the fact that records management is important.'

Certainly, records management is getting more attention from the top of the pyramid.

One of the Office of Management and Budget's 24 major e-government initiatives, NARA's Electronic Records Management project, is starting to issue critical guidance to agencies on standards, systems development and transfer formats.

'Key people at OMB and in other parts of the government have really come on board,' Carlin said. 'That's why we're making progress. We're in the right circles now.'

There are more reasons to be sanguine.

NARA's embryonic Electronic Records Archives program'what Bellardo calls NARA's 'big enchilada''will support an end-to-end process for lifecycle management of all federal records, and preserve and provide access to those records.

Accordingly, the ERA will help NARA officials solve the abstruse issues relating to the inevitable technological obsolescence of hardware and software formats.

'The value is that in the end the ERA becomes the ultimate repository for materials that we need to keep across generations of technology,' said NARA CIO Reynolds Cahoon.

NARA recently awarded two contracts for design of the system. Next summer, agency officials will evaluate design proposals and decide which vendor team will develop the system, said Kenneth Thibodeau, director of the ERA program.

But although e-records management efforts across government are beginning to blossom, Carlin offered a word of caution.

In order for the government to sustain progress on the e-records front, there has to be more continuity in high-level support for records management, he said.

'Administrations come and go,' he said. 'You need to build a real core of career people in OMB. Records management isn't something we're going to highlight in 2004, get everything done and then move on to something else in 2005. It's got to be a priority. It's got to be there.'


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