Federal Records at Risk? White House Seeks Remedial Action on Government Records after Self-Assessment by Agencies

Lee White, January 2012

Preservation—and accessibility—of government records is essential to the efficient functioning of government agencies and to a citizenry that seeks to be informed. Government records are, of course, invaluable to historians, to whom the archival record is one of the key elements of their craft. It is for this reason that the American Historical Association and the National Coalition for History have been persistently struggling to secure policies that seek to ensure preservation of, and access to, federal records of all kinds. But despite many statutory and mandated requirements that are in place, all is not well, it seems, with federal record-keeping practices.

Early in 2011 the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released the 2010 Records Management Self-Assessment Report. The goal of the self-assessment was to determine whether federal agencies are compliant with statutory and regulatory records management requirements. The report indicates that 95 percent of those federal agencies that responded are at high to moderate risk of compromising the integrity, authenticity, and reliability of their records

These agencies appear to be putting their records at risk through improper management and disposition of records; or, in some cases, they are saving their records but not taking the necessary steps to ensure that they can be retrieved and read. Of the 270 agencies that were expected to complete the self-assessment, 93 percent (251) responded.

The vast majority of federal records are now being created electronically, and the number of these digital records is growing exponentially. So the findings with regard to these records were especially alarming. For example, most agencies do not ensure that e-mail records are preserved in a recordkeeping system; do not monitor staff compliance with e-mail preservation policies on a regular basis; and have policies that instruct employees to print and file e-mail messages.

"Non-compliant records management undermines the ability of Federal agencies to efficiently conduct their business; undermines Government accountability and citizen's rights and interests; and jeopardizes the historical record," said Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero.

In both the 110th and 111th Congresses, the House of Representatives passed legislation requiring the Archivist of the United States to promulgate regulations governing presidential and agency preservation of e-mail. A bill addressing both presidential and federal records management was cleared by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in November 2011. But floor action has not been scheduled and no comparable legislation has been introduced in the Senate.

Due mainly to the inability of Congress to enact a legislative remedy, President Obama recently issued a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies on managing government records. This marked the start of an executive branch effort to reform records management policies and practices in government agencies and departments. The memorandum and the rationale behind it are online at whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/28/presidential-memorandum-managing-government-records and whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/28/we-cant-wait-president-signs-memorandum-modernize-management-government-.

"The National Archives and Records Administration strongly supports this memorandum from the President, which sends a very clear message to Federal agencies about the importance of managing electronic records," said David S. Ferriero.

The memorandum requires each agency to report to the Archivist of the United States the name of a senior agency official who will supervise an agency-wide evaluation of its records management programs. These evaluations, which are to be completed in 120 days, are to focus on electronic records, including e-mail and social media, as well as those programs that may be deploying or developing cloud-based services.

After the senior agency officials have been named, the National Archives will schedule meetings to provide additional information on completing the requirements in the memorandum.

Once the evaluations have been submitted, the National Archives and the Office of Management and Budget will have an additional 120 days to issue a Records Management Directive to agencies that will provide specific steps to reform records management policies and practices.

For additional information on the requirements laid out in the President's Memorandum go to the National Archives National Records Management Program Blog, Records Express.

Lee White is the executive director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at lwhite@historycoalition.org.