Agency Self Assessments Highlight Problems with E-Records

Today, much of the work of the federal government is done in a completely digital environment. Memos letters, reports, etc., are born and saved on computers; federal workers correspond over email; federal entities are on facebook, twitter, YouTube, and more. As the amount of work done digitally has grown, so have the number of electronic records produced by the federal government. Unfortunately, as a report by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) shows, the federal government is not doing a good job of managing those records.

According to NARA’s 2010 Records Management Self-Assessment, 95% of federal agencies* self-report that they are at risk of losing electronic records. This statistic should shock and disturb anyone who cares about open and accountable government. Without the ability to find, gain access to and use these records, government agencies are left with an increasingly limited ability to be fully responsive to FOIA requests, to discovery in litigation, to Congressional requests for information, to effectively and efficiently conduct their business, and to protect the rights and interest of citizens. And the public is left wondering whether all the documents and information we need to write our history, to understand policy development and implementation, and to trace who knew what, and who read and edited what document, are being preserved.

The situation with e-mail is especially troubling: according to NARA, information in agencies self-assessments indicate that most federal agencies do not manage their e-mail records in an electronic recordkeeping system at all; instead they “print and file.”  A survey federal record keeping practices completed a few years ago by our coalition partner Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) intimates that "print and file" could be more accurately described as "print and set on a pile on your desk." and our coalition partners urge Congress to pass legislation that addresses electronic record keeping requirements. During the last session of Congress, the House passed the Electronic Message Preservation Act, HR 1387, which was not acted on by the Senate. The proposal has been re-introduced in the 112th Congress as part of a larger package of "open government bills" by Representative Elijah Cummings (D- MD), HR 1144, the Transparency and Openness in Government. Ask your Representative to support the bill by clicking here.

 *Of the 270 agencies who received the self-assessment, 93 percent (251) responded, and 7 percent (18) failed to submit a response. These include a Solicitor General, the two offices of Inspectors General, and GSA (which does the contracting in this area.)

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