GAO: E-records management varies across agencies

As technology transforms how the federal government communicates, the National Archives and Records Administration must assess how agencies are preserving new media records for future generations, a General Accounting Office report released Tuesday said.

NARA has the responsibility for permanently cataloging and storing a dizzying array of documents, from the Bill of Rights to e-mails, databases, digital images and Web pages. By law, NARA also must help other federal agencies maintain and dispose of government records in accordance with the Federal Records Act.

Plans and capabilities for storing electronic records vary greatly across government, according to GAO's report, "National Archives: Preserving Electronic Records in an Era of Rapidly Changing Technology" (GGD-99-94). Part of the problem is determining whether such things as routine e-mail messages are electronic records worthy of preserving.

NARA is issuing new guidance to agencies on management of electronic records, but has postponed a survey that would have assessed the extent to which agencies use electronic records management programs. Instead, NARA decided to shift its focus from mainframes and databases to personal computers.

Postponing the survey is a bad move, GAO said, considering that the guidance 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 today in terms of [electronic records management]."

Some agencies are waiting for further guidance from NARA before putting systems for dealing with electronic records in place. Other agencies are pioneers in electronic records storage. The Defense Department, for example, had its own software designed to help employees determine which electronic documents must be preserved and how to do so. NARA has endorsed the DoD standards for other agencies, but does not require their use.

NARA disagreed with GAO's recommendation to push forward with the survey, saying it has only been put on hold temporarily. Nonetheless, "we continue to believe that the baseline survey should be done now," GAO said, because otherwise NARA's new initiatives could take hold before the survey is completed.

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