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National Archives Needs Better Handle on Agency Electronic Records, Says Watchdog

Challenges come from outdated technology, uncertain inventory of agencies.

The government’s full-time archivists need to up their game in performing the 21st-century task of preserving the increasing portion of federal agency records that exist only in electronic form, a watchdog found.

Though the National Archives and Records Administration has made progress in strengthening and modernizing its handling of important agency documents, “permanent electronic records are still at a significant risk of loss and destruction,” according to a June report from the agency’s inspector general.

Noting that “reskilling” and attracting current-day technological talent is high on the Trump administration’s President’s Management Agenda, the IG diagnosed a failure of NARA to identify all the federal agencies subject to the Federal Records Act, adding that “the universe of scheduled electronic records accessioned into NARA holdings has not been adequately identified.”

The archivists’ inability to identify “possible gaps in permanent electronic records schedule accessions,” the report said, can be attributed to “NARA not effectively exercising its oversight authority.” Specifically, the agency authorities responsible for determining what is a permanent record were not promptly entered into the tracking database, offices didn’t communicate with each other, and too many data systems remain “antiquated,” the auditors found.

The agency is “not exercising established controls,” the report added, best practices are “not being codified, and there is inadequate strategic planning for NARA’s inspections of other agencies’ records management systems.

“These deficiencies combined represent a material weakness in electronic records management and will continue to have a negative impact unless improvements are made,” the watchdog warned.

The challenge of knowing precisely how many agencies come under NARA’s purview for fulfilling the statutory mission while executing White House guidance is more complex than meets the eye, the auditors acknowledged.

“It has been widely reported that no federal entity knows how many federal agencies exist,” the report noted. “For example, Forbes reported in July 2017 that FOIA.gov lists 78 independent executive agencies and 174 components of the executive department while the United States Government Manual lists 96 independent executive units and 220 components. USA.gov lists 137 independent executive agencies and 268 units in the Cabinet.  In fiscal 2018, The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ranks a total of 488 agencies and subcomponents and the Federal Register reports there are at least 441 federal agencies.”

Even so, the audit said, NARA should have performed an analysis of the issues involved in creating an authoritative list of agencies subject to the Federal Records Act.

The IG made 10 recommendations, among them creating a complete authoritative list of all active federal agencies (including but not limited to departments, agencies, sub-agencies, and/or components subject to the Federal Records Act); making data entry more timely; and considering reporting the Electronic Records Management deficiencies identified in the audit report as a material weakness under Federal Managers’ Financial Integrity Act.

David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, in a June 11 letter agreed with all 10, and the auditors said they consider the recommendations resolved, with execution underway.

On June 28, Ferriero joined with acting Budget Director Russell Vought in publishing new guidance for agencies for modernizing electronic records retention.

This story has been updated