National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-10-20.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Subcommittee on Government Management,
                          Information, and Technology
                          Committee on Government Reform
                          House of Representatives

For Release on Delivery
10:00 a.m. EDT
on Wednesday              NATIONAL ARCHIVES
October 20, 1999

                          The Challenge of
                          Electronic Records
                          Statement of L. Nye Stevens
                          Director, Federal Management and Workforce Issues
                          General Government Division


National Archives: The Challenge of
Electronic Records Management

               Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

               I am pleased to be here today to discuss the challenges that face the
               National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and federal
               agencies in their efforts to manage the rapidly increasing volume of
               electronic records. Records generated electronically, such as electronic
               mail (E-mail) messages, word processing documents, CD ROMs, and
               World Wide Web site pages, present special archival challenges for NARA
               and the agencies because these technologies are new and constantly
               changing. Consistent, sustained oversight from Congress – through
               avenues such as today’s hearing -- is needed to ensure that records
               management policies and practices keep pace with today’s environment.

               My testimony today centers on our report to the Senate Governmental
               Affairs Committee in July 1999. In that report, we noted that 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. Also, because of the wide variance
               in electronic records management (ERM) policies and practices at four
               agencies we visited, we recommended that NARA conduct a baseline
               survey of all agencies as a part of its planned business process
               reengineering (BPR) effort. NARA had earlier planned to do such a survey
               but has decided to postpone it because the Archivist gave higher priority to
               such activities as BPR. Instead, NARA plans to collect information from a
               small, judgmentally selected sample of agencies. We continue to believe
               NARA’s BPR effort would benefit from a complete baseline assessment
               survey of all agencies’ records management capabilities.

               NARA has taken actions to address the agencies’ immediate needs for
               ERM guidance and direction -- revising its bulletins and other guidance as
               well as forming a new group to help answer agencies’ questions on ERM
               issues. Some of NARA’s actions have been taken as a result of a court
               decision, which held that NARA’s guidance for the deletion of electronic
               records exceeded statutory authority. The Archivist appealed and on
               August 6, 1999 the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s
               decision. The Archivist said, however, that NARA would continue to work
               toward ensuring preservation and ready access to electronic records.

                National Archives: Preserving Electronic Records in an Era of Rapidly Changing Technology (GAO-
               GGD-99-94, July 19, 1999).
                   Public Citizen v. Carlin, 2 F. Supp. 2d 1 (D.D.C. 1997).
                   Public Citizen v. Carlin, 184 F.3d 900 (D.C. Cir. 1999).

               Page 1                                                                        GAO/T-GGD-00-24
                    National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

                    NARA is the successor agency to the National Archives Establishment,
Background          which was created in 1934, then incorporated into the General Services
                    Administration in 1949 and renamed the National Archives and Records
                    Service. NARA became an independent executive branch agency in 1985
                    in a move designed to give the Archivist greater autonomy to focus
                    resources on the primary mission of preserving the country’s documentary

                    NARA’s mission is to make the permanently valuable records of the
                    government – in all media – available to the public, the President,
                    Congress, and the courts for reference and research. The Federal Records
                    Act defines a record as all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine
                    readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical
                    form, made or received by an agency in connection with the transaction of
                    public business as evidence of the organization, functions, policies,
                    decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the government.
                    As a result, NARA preserves billions of pages of textual documents and
                    numerous maps, photographs, videos, and computer records.

                    Under the Federal Records Act, both NARA and federal agencies have
                    responsibilities for records management. NARA must provide guidance
                    and assistance to federal agencies on the creation, maintenance, use, and
                    disposition of government records. Federal agencies are then responsible
                    for ensuring that their records are created and preserved in accordance
                    with the act. NARA and agency staff work together to identify and
                    inventory an agency’s records to appraise the value of the records and
                    determine how long they should be kept and under what conditions.

                    We found that NARA and federal agencies are confronted with many ERM
NARA and Federal    challenges, particularly technological issues. NARA must be able to
Agencies Face ERM   receive electronic records from agencies, store them, and retrieve them
Challenges          when needed. Agencies must be able to create electronic records, store
                    them, properly dispose of them when appropriate, and send valuable
                    electronic records to NARA for archival storage. All of this must be done
                    in the context of the rapidly changing technological environment.

                    NARA officials told us that NARA needs to expand its capacity to accept
                    the increasing volume of electronic records from agencies. Over the past
                    quarter century, NARA received approximately 90,000 agency electronic

                        44 U.S.C. 3301.
                        44 U.S.C. 2904

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                         National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

                         data files. However, now NARA estimates that some federal agencies,
                         such as the Department of State and Department of the Treasury, are
                         individually generating 10 times that many electronic records annually just
                         in E-mail – and many of those records may need to be preserved by NARA.

                         In addition to increasing volume, NARA must address some definitional
                         problems, such as what constitutes an electronic record. In addition,
                         because agencies follow no uniform hardware or software standards,
                         NARA must be capable of accepting various formats from agencies and
                         maintaining a continued capability of reading those records. The long-
                         term preservation and retention of those electronic records is a challenge
                         because of the difficulty in providing continued access to archived records
                         over many generations of systems, because the average life of a typical
                         software product is 2 to 5 years. NARA is also concerned about the
                         authenticity and reliability of records transferred to NARA.

                         NARA is not alone in facing ERM challenges, the agencies also must meet
                         Federal Records Act responsibilities. Records management is the initial
                         responsibility of the staff member who creates the record, whether the
                         record is paper or electronic. Preservation of and access to that record
                         then also becomes the responsibility of agency managers and agency
                         records officers.

                         Agencies must incorporate NARA’s guidance into their own recordkeeping
                         systems. Agencies’ responsibilities are complicated by the decentralized
                         nature of electronic records creation and control. For example, agencies’
                         employees send huge volumes of E-mail, and any of those messages
                         deemed to be an official record must be preserved. Agencies must assign
                         records management responsibilities, control multiple versions, and
                         archive the messages.

                         Agencies’ reactions to the challenges I just mentioned are varied. On the
Agencies Vary in Their   basis of our discussions with NARA and some agency officials, we learned
Implementation of        that some agencies are waiting for more specific guidance from NARA
ERM                      while others are moving forward by looking for ways to better manage
                         their electronic records. However, there has been no recent
                         governmentwide survey to determine the extent of agencies’ ERM
                         programs and capabilities or their compliance with the Federal Records

                         NARA officials consider the Department of Defense (DOD) as one of the
                         agencies most advanced in its ERM efforts. NARA has worked with DOD

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                      National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

                      for several years to develop DOD’s ERM software standard, which is
                      intended to help DOD employees determine what are records and how to
                      properly preserve them. NARA endorsed the DOD standard in November
                      1998 as a tool that other agencies could use as a model until a final policy
                      is issued by NARA. NARA, however, did not mandate that agencies use the
                      DOD standard.

                      The DOD standard (1) sets forth baseline functional requirements for
                      records management application software; (2) defines required system
                      interfaces and search criteria; and (3) describes the minimum records
                      management requirements that must be met, according to current NARA
                      regulations. A number of companies have records management
                      application products that have been certified by DOD for meeting this

                      Other agencies have also been testing ERM software applications for their
                      electronic records. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space
                      Administration (NASA) and the Department of the Treasury’s Office of
                      Thrift Supervision (OTS) have both tested ERM software with mixed

                      Even though NARA is aware of what some agencies are doing – such as
NARA Does Not Have    DOD, NASA, OTS, and some others -- it does not have governmentwide
Governmentwide Data   data on the records management capabilities and programs of federal
on Agencies’ ERM      agencies. NARA had planned to do a baseline assessment survey to collect
                      such data on all agencies by the end of fiscal year 2000. The survey would
Efforts               have identified best practices at agencies and collected data on (1)
                      program management and records management infrastructure, (2)
                      guidance and training, (3) scheduling and implementation, and (4)
                      electronic recordkeeping. NARA had planned to determine how well
                      agencies were complying with requirements for retention, maintenance,
                      disposal, retrieval/accessibility, and inventorying of electronic records.
                      The Archivist decided, however, to temporarily postpone doing this
                      baseline survey because he accorded higher priority to such activities as
                      reengineering NARA’s business processes. NARA’s BPR will address its
                      internal processes as well as guidance and interactions with agencies.

                      In our July 1999 report, we recommended that NARA do the baseline
                      survey now, as part of its BPR, instead of waiting until BPR – which is

                       The DOD standard, Design Criteria Standard for Electronic Records Management Software
                      Applications, November 1997, was issued under the authority of DOD Directive 5015.2, Department of
                      Defense Records Management Program, April 11, 1997.

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                       National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

                       scheduled to take 18 to 24 months -- is completed. Conducting the
                       baseline survey now could provide valuable information for the BPR effort
                       while also accomplishing the survey’s intended purpose of providing
                       baseline data on where agencies are with regards to records management
                       programs. NARA would also be in a better position in later years to assess
                       the impacts of its BPR effort.

                       In response to our draft report and in a September 17, 1999, letter to the
                       Comptroller General, the Archivist said that much of this baseline data
                       would not be relevant to BPR and therefore NARA would not collect it at
                       this time. However, NARA does have plans to collect limited information
                       from a sample of agencies after starting BPR. We continue to believe that
                       the baseline data is necessary to give NARA the proper starting point for
                       proceeding with its BPR. Because agencies vary in their implementation
                       of ERM programs, the baseline survey would provide much richer data
                       than the limited information collection effort now planned by NARA.

                       Even though NARA lacks governmentwide data on how agencies are
NARA Is Revising Its   implementing ERM, NARA has already begun revising its guidance to
ERM Guidance           agencies. Historically, NARA’s ERM guidance has been geared toward
                       mainframes and databases, not personal computers. NARA’s electronic
                       records guidance to agencies, which establishes the basic requirements for
                       creation, maintenance, use, and disposition of electronic records, is found
                       in the Code of Federal Regulations.

                       In 1972, before the widespread use of personal computers in the
                       government workplace, NARA issued guidance – General Records
                       Schedule (GRS) 20 – on the preservation of electronic records. Several
                       revisions occurred prior to a 1995 version which provided that after
                       electronic records were placed in any recordkeeping system, the records
                       could be deleted. In December 1996, a public interest group filed a
                       complaint in federal district court challenging the 1995 guidance.

                       In an October 1997 decision, the court found that the Archivist had
                       exceeded the scope of his statutory authority in promulgating GRS 20. The
                       court said that GRS 20 did not differentiate between program records and
                       administrative “housekeeping” records, and electronic records are distinct
                       from printed versions of the same record. The court also said that the
                       Archivist failed to carry out his statutory duty to evaluate the value of
                       records for disposal, and GRS 20 violated the Records Disposal Act
                       because it failed to specify a period of time for retention of records to be
                           36 C.F.R. Part 1234.

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                         National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

                         disposed of under a general schedule. Thus, the court ruled GRS 20 “null
                         and void.”

                         Following the court’s ruling, NARA established an Electronic Records
                         Working Group in March 1998 with a specific time frame to propose
                         alternatives to GRS 20. In a subsequent ruling, the court ordered the
                         NARA working group to have an implementation plan to the Archivist by
                         September 30, 1998. In response to the working group’s recommendations,
                         NARA agreed in September 1998 to take several actions:

                       • It issued a revision in the general records schedules on December 21, 1998,
                         to authorize agencies’ disposal of certain administrative records (such as
                         personnel, travel, and procurement) regardless of physical format, after
                         creation of an official recordkeeping copy.
                       • It initiated a follow-on study group (made up of NARA staff, agency
                         officials, and consultants) in January 1999 – Fast Track Development
                         Project – intended to answer the immediate questions of agencies about
                         ERM that can be solved relatively quickly.
                       • It issued NARA Bulletin 99-04 on March 25, 1999, to guide agencies on
                         scheduling how long to keep electronic records of their program activities
                         and certain administrative functions formerly covered under GRS 20.
                       • It drafted a new general records schedule for certain administrative
                         records to document the management of information technology. NARA
                         has received comments from agencies on the draft, and the draft is still
                         under review by NARA and the Office of Management and Budget. NARA
                         hopes to have this guidance issued by the end of 1999.

                         On August 6, 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s
                         decision and held that GRS 20 is valid. That reversal was not appealed by
                         the public interest group. In response to the court of appeals decision, the
                         Archivist said that NARA would continue in an orderly way to develop
                         practical, workable strategies and methods for managing and preserving
                         records in the electronic age and ensuring access to them. He said that
                         NARA remains committed to working aggressively toward that goal.

                         Our review of the ERM activities in four states and three foreign
ERM Activities in        governments showed that approaches to ERM differ. These entities often
Some States and          did things differently from each other and/or NARA.
Foreign Countries
                         In general, the four state archiving agencies (Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon,
Differ from Those of     and Texas) provide centralized policies and procedures that are described
the Federal              in either state law or administrative rules. State archiving agencies that
Government               take physical custody of the actual records do so when the records are no

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               National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

               longer needed by the individual agencies but are of archival value. Two of
               the states also emphasized the use of the Internet as a mechanism that
               allows both the archivist and the general public to determine where
               records may be found. State officials indicated that state law and
               administrative rules that they issue guide their records management
               requirements, but they also interact with NARA and other states to assist
               in determining their states’ policies.

               Our review of public documents from three foreign governments
               (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom) showed that although these
               countries share common challenges, they each have taken somewhat
               different approaches to ERM decisions. For example, Australia has strong
               central authority and decentralized custody of records, and it maintains a
               governmentwide locator system. Canada issues “vision statements” rather
               than specific policies, and individual agencies maintain their own
               electronic records until they have no more operational need for them. The
               United Kingdom established broad guidelines, which are put into practice
               by its individual agencies in partnership arrangement with its national
               archives. Realizing the common problems faced by all countries, NARA is
               part of international initiatives that are to study and make
               recommendations regarding ERM.

               In conclusion, it is obvious that NARA and federal agencies are being
Concluding     challenged to effectively and efficiently manage electronic records in an
Observations   environment of rapidly changing technology and increasing volume of
               electronic records. It is certainly not an easy task. Much remains for
               NARA and the agencies to do as they tackle the issues I have discussed.

               We believe that NARA is moving in the right direction. However, because
               of the variance of ERM programs and activities across the government, we
               continue to believe that the Archivist should conduct the baseline
               assessment survey as we recommended in our July 1999 report. This
               survey would produce valuable information for NARA’s use during its
               critical BPR effort. A well-planned and successful BPR should be a
               stepping-stone for NARA as it moves into the next phase of its
               management of all records, particularly electronic.

               As you know, Mr. Chairman, NARA has not had concerted congressional
               oversight as an independent agency. Such oversight is essential to help
               NARA ensure that the official records of our country are properly
               maintained and preserved. I commend the efforts of this Subcommittee
               for holding this hearing and bringing the issues surrounding government
               records into the spotlight. I look forward to future hearings in this area.

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National Archives: The Challenge of Electronic Records Management

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased
to respond to any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee
may have.

Contacts and Acknowledgement
For further information regarding this testimony, please contact L. Nye
Stevens or Michael Jarvis at (202) 512-8676. Alan Stapleton, Warren Smith,
and James Rebbe also made key contributions to this testimony.

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