National Archives

Preserving Electronic Records in an Era of Rapidly Changing Technology Gao ID: GGD-99-94 July 19, 1999

Records generated electronically, such as electronic mail, word processing documents, CD ROMS, and web pages, present a preservation challenge for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and other agencies because of the changing nature of these new technologies and because the sheer volume of these records is mushrooming. This report discusses issues relating to electronic records management, focusing on the preservation of electronic records. GAO provides information on (1) the challenges that confront NARA and federal agencies as a result of their growing reliance on electronic media; (2) the status of selected agencies' and NARA's implementation of electronic records management; and (3) the policies and procedures used by other governments, state and foreign, for electronic records management.

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.


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