Government practices in preserving electronic records called 'fatally flawed'

A panel of experts told a committee of the House of Representatives that the National Archives and Records Administration is failing to conserve agency electronic records, especially e-mails. -DB
May 21, 2009
By Jill R. Aitoro

The government’s practices in preserving electronic records is “fatally flawed,” and the National Archives and Records Administration must enforce stricter policies to store agencies records, especially e-mail messages, a panel of records management professionals told a House hearing on Thursday.

“NARA’s use of technology appears to be focused on making NARA a museum, rather than a lead agency on life-cycle management of records for public access and government accountability,” said Patrice McDermott, director of, a group advocating more transparency in government. “The issue of records management of e-mail is the iceberg below this tip. NARA’s policy in this area is fatally flawed.”

McDermott, who appeared before the House Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee, said NARA’s 2006-2016 strategic plan has a total of one and a half pages on records administration and just one “vague strategy for electronic records management.” That strategy states, “By providing guidance, training and assistance throughout the government, [NARA] will support agencies’ business needs and embed records management in the agencies’ business processes and systems.”

A year ago, NARA announced plans to build an Electronic Records Archive, but “has been passive [in] trying to update records management practices at most federal agencies,” said Meredith Fuchs, general counsel for The George Washington University’s National Security Archives. She referred to a report from the Government Accountability Office that found NARA no longer performed inspections of agency records management programs for e-mail and has not conducted any since 2000.

“The result is that not much changes in federal records management until there is a scandal, such as the public exposure of the loss of millions of federal record e-mails at the White House,” Fuchs said, referring to a 2005 analysis that identified a period of more than 700 days during which the number of White House e-mails were either unrealistically low or nonexistent. The investigation resulted in records management professionals criticizing the Bush administration for its e-mail preservation practices.

In addition, inspectors discovered that NARA lost a computer hard drive containing sensitive data from the Clinton administration, including Social Security numbers, addresses, and Secret Service and White House operating procedures.

A report submitted with the testimony recommended that agency inspectors general be responsible for enforcing e-records management, rather than NARA. The report also recommends that the administration require every agency appoint a chief transparency officer, who would have the same executive authority as the agency’s chief information officer. The report also called for standard government electronic management systems and for agencies to install software that would automatically preserve electronic records so end users would not have the responsibility to store the records.

The Obama administration’s call for agencies to use collaborative and social networking tools will add to NARA’s challenges to store public records, according to Fuchs. “That’s a whole new level of complexity that I don’t think we even had in the Bush administration,” she said.

Copyright 2009