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GAO: Archives not overseeing e-mail record preservation

The National Archives and Records Administration has done little to ensure that agencies properly preserve e-mail, with the number of agencies it has advised on records management dropping by more than 90 percent in the past five years, according to a report scheduled for release this week by the Government Accountability Office.

Comment on this article in The Forum.The Federal Records Act requires agencies to preserve records that document their organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures and essential transactions. On Wednesday, the House is expected to consider a bill, H.R.5811, to amend the Federal Records Act and the 1978 Presidential Records Act to better regulate how agencies manage electronic communications and to give more oversight responsibility to the national archivist.

By Sept. 30, for all records stored in information systems that have been operational since Dec. 17, 2005, agencies must have NARA-approved life-cycle schedules, which provide information about when a record was created and how it was used. The information will help determine which records will be transferred to NARA and when.

NARA will oversee records management and archiving, issue records management guidance, and conduct inspections and surveys of agency records and records management programs.

But according to the GAO report, NARA has failed to oversee how well agencies have been preserving records. The agency has sponsored or performed only six records management studies since 2003 and has conducted none of the more intensive inspections since 2000. NARA hasn't conducted inspections, according to the GAO report, because of its decision in 2003 to initiate inspections only under "exceptional circumstances," such as when NARA deems the risk to records as being high and when other methods, such as targeted assistance and training, fails to mitigate the risk.

But the number of agencies NARA has targeted for assistance has dropped precipitously during the past five years, GAO reported. In 2002, NARA opened 77 cases requiring targeted assistance and completed 76. In 2007, NARA opened only four cases, none of which were completed.

"It's important that NARA do more continuing oversight of what agencies are actually doing, not only to inform policy, but also to educate agencies on what needs to be done and how," said Linda Koontz, director of information management issues at GAO. "This is a point we made in another report a number of years ago. NARA tried targeted assistance, but that hasn't really been a good way to deal with the problems."

NARA argued that it has completed fewer inspections because it uses already scarce resources and the effectiveness of the assistance to improve agencies' preservation practices is questionable.

"In practice, those full-scale inspections were extremely resource-intensive and took several years to complete," said Archivist Allen Weinstein in a written response to the GAO report. "Once a NARA evaluation report was issued, the need for extensive resources shifted to the agency. Agencies often took years to satisfy recommendations made in NARA evaluations, and records management practices did not necessarily improve."

GAO reviewed records management processes at four agencies: the Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development departments, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Trade Commission. GAO concluded that all the agencies continue to use paper-based processes for preserving e-mail records, though EPA is transitioning to an electronic content management system with record-keeping features.

"There is a need to move to electronic record-keeping, particularly for e-mail," said Koontz, who provided preliminary results of the report at an April hearing before the House Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee. "Agencies are largely functioning in a paper world, but that can make meeting requirements of law difficult," as more communication occurs electronically.

The agencies provided adequate policies for e-mail records management, according to the report, although GAO had made recommendations for each. For example, DHS failed to state that draft documents circulated on e-mail systems were potential federal records, and EPA and FTC did not instruct their staffs on proper management and preservation of messages from nongovernmental e-mail services such as Google Gmail and Microsoft Hotmail. HUD required only the sender to be responsible for judging if his or her e-mail qualified as a record. The NARA regulation requires both the sender and the recipient to determine if the e-mail meets the definition of a record and therefore be preserved. HUD managers also failed to inform staff that e-mail records should not be stored in e-mail systems or on backup tapes.

In addition, GAO found that senior officials at all of the agencies it studied, except FTC, failed to identify e-mail messages that qualified as federal records. Eight officials were inconsistent in complying with regulations because of inadequate training and oversight, and the difficulty of managing large volumes of e-mail in paper-based record-keeping systems, and, in the case of HUD, claims that e-mail was rarely used for business matters.

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