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Many federal agencies struggle with records management
Some fall short on basic infrastructure
and training, survey finds.

Records management officials in federal agencies fight an ongoing battle for IT resources and money to hire staff and contractors to identify and schedule records disposition and training.

Until recently, it was unclear how much progress agencies were making toward meeting their statutory requirements to manage the records necessary to meet their business needs, ensure government accountability and preserve historically valuable records for future generations. But a self-assessment survey conducted by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in September 2009 and soon to be repeated in 2010 sheds some light on how far most agencies still have to go to be in compliance.

Each of the 34 questions in the self-assessment covers an aspect of an agency’s records management program and practices. Based on a NARA assessment of responses, 36 percent of agencies are at a high risk of improper disposition of records.

“We didn’t know what to expect because this was our first survey,” says Laurence Brewer, director of NARA’s Life Cycle Management Division. “We had some inkling because we deal with the agencies every day, but we never had a structured tool to look across the federal government. Obviously, it is very concerning that only 21 percent are at low risk and 79 percent at moderate to high risk. There is a lot of work to do.”

Brewer’s staff of 30 people provides guidance and training to all the federal agencies in Washington, D.C. The survey was intended to help NARA understand why certain agencies are not in compliance. NARA asked 12 questions to determine the extent to which agencies have established formal records management programs.

According to NARA’s survey report, one in six federal agencies has not established the basic infrastructure of a records management program. “Without dedicated records management staff, clear policy directives and proper training, these agencies are at high risk of mishandling their information,” the report states. “They may find it difficult to meet their legal and operational needs, and their lack of coherent recordkeeping may inhibit Congressional oversight and public accountability.”

Additionally, four cabinet departments and many large departmental components and independent agencies are among the 40 percent of agencies that have not conducted a recent evaluation of their records management program.

And while most of the agencies report providing regular training to their staff, one cabinet department and many large departmental components and independent agencies are among the 27 percent that have not, the report finds. Many agencies post records management guidance on their intranet sites and consider that training, or they present briefings to staff as needed.

“There should be a designated records officer,” Brewer says, but perhaps that person is doing three or four different jobs. “It is ultimately the agency’s responsibility to ensure they have a formal records management program.”

The shift to electronic records

Most agencies are making progress scheduling their electronic records. But as more records become electronic, the fact that records management officials are often not at the table during systems procurement discussions is becoming a larger concern, Brewer says. The survey asked if records management staff members actively participate in the agency’s IT systems design processes to integrate records management and archival requirements into the design, development and implementation of electronic information systems. Amazingly, 42 percent said no.

“It does make sense for the records management person to report to the CIO in many cases,” Brewer says. “But I would argue that wherever records management gets the best support is where it belongs. It may be in a general counsel’s office. It does make sense that the records management person is at the table when IT systems are being discussed.” Culturally, however, records managers and IT people often don’t mix and don’t speak the same language. “We are trying to overcome that by coming up with topics IT people will care about and inviting them to our conferences,” Brewer says.

Working on agency improvements

One agency where the records management team is within the CIO’s office is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Perhaps that’s one reason that the EPA earned a perfect 100 score on the NARA survey, and why NARA gave it two awards last year for its records management accomplishments.

“The EPA has a long history of supporting records management, and across the agency people see it as critical to our work and strive to improve it,” says John Moses, director of the Collection Strategies Division in the Office of Information Collection in EPA’s Office of Environmental Information.

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