National Archives:

Preserving Electronic Records in an Era of Rapidly Changing Technology

GGD-99-94: Published: Jul 19, 1999. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the preservation of electronic records, focusing on the: (1) challenges that confront the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and federal agencies as a result of their increased reliance on electronic media; (2) status of selected agencies' and NARA's implementation of electronic records management (ERM); and (3) ERM policies and procedures of selected other governments (state and foreign).

GAO noted that: (1) NARA and federal agencies are faced with the substantial challenge of preserving electronic records in an era of rapidly changing technology; (2) in addition to handling the burgeoning volume of electronic records, NARA and the agencies must address several hardware and software issues to ensure that electronic records are properly created, permanently maintained, secured, and retrievable in the future; (3) also, NARA's and the agencies' ERM efforts are competing with other information technology priorities, particularly the need to ensure that their computers are year 2000 compliant; (4) NARA is responsible for providing guidance and assistance to agencies on how to maintain their official government records and for archiving those records once they are transferred to NARA; (5) the agencies are responsible for ensuring that records are created and preserved in accordance with the Federal Records Act; (6) no centralized source of information exists to document the extent to which agencies are fulfilling their ERM responsibilities under the act; (7) on the basis of GAO's discussions with officials from NARA and four judgmentally selected agencies, GAO found that plans and capabilities for ERM vary greatly across agencies; (8) NARA has recently postponed a planned baseline survey that was intended to obtain governmentwide information on agencies' ERM programs because NARA believes that it should first complete a business process reengineering (BPR) effort; (9) this BPR effort, which is intended to assess and potentially alter NARA's guidance to and interaction with agencies, is expected to take 18 to 24 months; (10) GAO believes that the baseline survey information is critical to ensuring that the BPR results are relevant to the ERM situations at agencies and the survey should not be postponed; (11) these baseline data are needed to meet one of NARA's stated strategic planning goals to stay abreast of technologies in the agencies; (12) even while planning its BPR effort, NARA is taking some immediate action to address the agencies' needs for ERM guidance and direction; (13) state and foreign governments are addressing similar ERM challenges; and (14) from GAO's limited judgmental sample of state and foreign governments, it is clear that these governments and the federal government often differ in: (a) the organization of their archival activities; (b) their philosophies on centralization versus decentralization of recordkeeping responsibilities; and (c) their computer hardware and software capabilities.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In agency comments to the draft report, and also in the September 1999 letter to the Comptroller General that served as the response to 31 USC 720, section 236, and OMB Circular A-50, NARA said it was not going to implement the recommendation. Instead of doing a governmentwide baseline assessment survey as GAO recommended, NARA is going to obtain information from a limited sample of agencies. NARA said that what GAO recommended would not be relevant at this time, but the need for such a survey would be evaluated again later.

    Recommendation: In order for NARA to have the best information to make decisions during its business process reengineering (BPR) effort and, thereby, improve electronic records management in the federal government, the Archivist, NARA, should conduct a baseline assessment survey now and use the information as input into the BPR effort, rather than postpone the survey until after the effort is completed.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration: National Archives and Records Administration


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