Agencies continue to struggle with records management

Wednesday - 5/2/2012, 3:08pm EDT

Federal agencies continue to struggle with properly managing their records, and the changing nature and technology of 21st-century record-keeping could throw a further wrench in the process.

An annual report from the National Archives and Records Administration finds little overall improvement from the last year in agency records management, although some individual agencies have excelled particularly in the realm of social media.

Low-risk agencies Score - out of 100
Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement 99
Bureau of Indian Affairs (Interior) 98
Office of Personnel Management 96
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 96
Defense Information Systems Agency 94
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services 93

NARA's assessment includes responses from 276 agencies — all the Cabinet-level departments and most of the smaller independent ones. NARA scored the results, designating agencies as low, moderate or at high risk for improper records management.

While the results remain mostly unchanged from last year, the most recent survey saw a slight uptick in agencies scoring in the low-risk category.

Still, the report pointed to persistent issues of workforce training, oversight and the management of electronic records.

Ill-equipped staff?

The report singled out both a dearth of agency records-management staff and a lack of training for the staff they do have

Forty-three percent of the agencies indicated they had 10 or fewer full-time positions devoted to recordkeeping.

Staff at many agencies are ill-equipped to handle records management, according to the report. "Many records management staff have insufficient knowledge and understanding of electronic records," the report found, making it difficult to break the cycle of record mismanagement.

Senior officials — agency employees who often create records of the most lasting historical importance — are often overlooked in training sessions.

For example, nearly a quarter of the agencies surveyed didn't provide training for all senior officials, according to the report.

In many cases, agencies are relying outdated guidelines for storing records. Thirty percent of the agencies said their records-management directives had not been updated since fiscal-year 2006; another 2 percent of agencies said they did know when their directives were last updated.

High-risk agencies Score - out of 100
Postal Regulatory Commission 3
Economic Development Administration (Commerce) 11
Defense Contract Management Agency 20
Census Bureau 43
Federal Aviation Administration 45
Congressional Budget Office 47

"This is of particular concern as agencies are not static entities, and organizational changes often lead to policy updates that a records management directive should cover," NARA's report stated.

Lack of oversight

NARA found agency oversight of records management particularly troubling. In the assessment, 176 of them said they conducted evaluations of recordkeeping practices. But when NARA asked the agencies to provide documentation that such reviews actually took place, many of the agencies sent blank checklists or reports "that only tangentially referred to agency records," according to the assessment.

NARA also found a majority of federal agencies — 68 percent — did not have performance measures in place to evaluate records management programs. And where such metrics were in place, many focused on only a single activity, such as retiring — or disposing — of records.

Still, the report noted some agencies have taken up a more "sophisticated" approach, using dashboards or scorecards to cover multiple activities and various metrics.

Evolving technology

For most agencies, paper records, by themselves, pose enough significant challenges. But evolving technology — and the degree to which new technologies are used by the government &mdah; will likely add new pressures.

NARA's assessment found 70 percent of agencies using social media and 25 percent employ cloud computing. However NARA said many of the agency reponses to the assessment evinced a lack of understanding of key terms and concepts when it comes to storing and managing electronic records.

"Records staff do not need to be technological experts, but they have to understand certain fundamental principles and practices of managing electronic records," the report stated.

For storing emails, for example, only one-third of agencies indicated they used dedicated records-management software for archiving email records. The survey found the majority of agencies — 80 percent — continue to print and manually file email messages, while nearly 50 percent store them on backup tapes, which NARA said is not a true "preservation tool."

The assessment predates a Nov. 28 Presidential memo, which called for agencies to include social media in their record-keeping practices. However, the report did find some agencies making headway in managing records stored on social media platforms or in cloud-computing environments.

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