NARA Survey Shows Extent of Problems with Records Mangement

Strong records management practices are the backbone of open and accountable government: if federal employees cannot efficiently find records, they cannot be fully responsive to public requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), to discovery in litigation, or to Congressional requests for information. Previously, we discussed the major problems with agencies’ electronic record keeping practices highlighted in the  National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) 2010 Records Management Self-Assessment. A closer look at data the in NARA’s report reveals more troubling news about the state of records management practices across the government.

For the 2010 report, NARA asked each agency to answer a series of questions that cover six major areas: Records Management Program; Records Management Program – Activities; Electronic Records; Records Disposition; Records Management Training; and Vital Records. Of the 270 agencies who received the self-assessment, 93 percent (251) responded, and 7 percent (19) failed to submit a response. NARA scored each survey it received back.

Agencies could earn a maximum of 100 points on the survey. NARA determined that agencies scoring 90 are said to have a relatively low level of risk of losing or destroying records associated with their records management programs. Agencies with scores between 60 and 89 to have programs at moderate risk, and those with scores below 60 are at high risk. Appendix III of NARA’s report presents aggregate scores for each agency and each component of the agency. The average scores for each agency are presented below. 

*green cells are low risk; yellow cells are moderate; red cells are high*

Notably, on average, NO agency’s records management program is considered at low risk. The majority of agencies score in the “moderate risk” range. Almost 30% of the agencies are rated at "high risk."  These average scores omit components that did not respond to the survey. If we took those components into account, the picture of would look even more bleak.

As previously noted, these results are not good news for fans of open government. They mean that we cannot say with any certainty that records that are crucial for understanding decisions made by the government – and holding officials accountable for those decsions – are not being lost or improperly destroyed.

A more in-depth view of the data from NARA’s report reveals a perhaps more heartening picture of record keeping practices by federal agencies, and some additional areas of concern.

*green cells are low risk; yellow cells are moderate; red cells are high; black cells did not respond*

First, it is clear that some components do seem to be doing a good job of managing their records. Almost 62% of the Department of Interior’s (DOI) components are rated as “low” risk. At the same time, however, one component of DOI failed to score even half of the points available, and another component did not even respond. The variation between scores for components of each agency is quite striking. The largest variation in scores is at DOD, where 86 points separate the highest score (90 for the Office of the Secretary) from the lowest (4 for the Defense Business Transformation Agency).

Turning around the ship on records management is going to take a concerted effort on the part of the Administration and Congress. In the report NARA recognizes a lack of resources as an underlying factor for agencies’ problems managing records. Given that agencies’ budgets are expected to continue to be squeezed in the near future, it will be increasingly important for leadership to make it clear that agencies must make managing their records a priority.

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