Agencies' electronic storage of records lags, archivists say

Federal agencies have fallen behind in efforts to adapt record-keeping to the digital era, senior officials with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) told a House Government Reform subcommittee Tuesday.

At Technology Subcommittee hearing, lawmakers questioned government witnesses on how to improve agency efforts to select and prepare electronic documents for archiving.

"Many agencies have not fulfilled their obligation to confer with NARA about the progress of their records-management plans," said Subcommittee Chairman Adam Putnam, R-Fla. "While NARA has been charged with oversight responsibility regarding these important matters, they have been provided little, if any, authority to enforce compliance."

Linda Koontz, director of information management issues at the General Accounting Office, said rapid changes in information technology are leaving behind electronic records that no longer can be read. "For example, few computers today have disk drives that can read information stored on 8- or 5-1/2-inch diskettes, even if the diskettes remain readable," she said. "Unless these challenges are addressed, valuable government information may be lost forever."

Koontz said problems stem from the fact that federal agencies create records with different technologies in a decentralized environment and assign a low priority to record-keeping. NARA recently has improved its e-records policy, she added, but needs to start inspecting agency records to ensure that historic data is safely retained.

"Until NARA fully addresses the need to assess and improve agency records-management programs and develop an implementation plan," she said, "the risk is increased that records-management programs will continue to show the weaknesses that led to the scheduling and disposition problems that we and NARA described in earlier work."

U.S. Archivist John Carlin said the past decade has seen "significant progress" in the creation of software products to manage electronic records. He noted, however, that deploying the systems in the federal government is expensive and time-consuming, so many agencies print electronic files for storage, even though the files cannot be rendered well on paper.

Carlin singled out the Defense Department for exemplary progress in storing electronic records and endorsed its Standard 5015.2 software for use by all federal agencies.

L. Reynolds Cahoon, NARA's chief information officer, said NARA is still developing technology to store and view e-records independent of the programs that originally created them.

"We have been very conservative with the technologies that we have transferred into the archives," Cahoon said. He noted that until recently, only documents based in the ASCII format and other "flat file" formats were stored. Today, documents in PDF format and other files are allowed, and NARA is gradually accepting more file formats and standards.

"We do believe that NARA is in a very important position to set standards for electronic document storage," he said.

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