Fed Record Keeping Called Deplorable

New report says federal agencies have fallen "woefully" behind private-sector efforts. 

The White House isn't the only government office bungling its document management responsibilities, according to a new report that claims there is an "appalling lack of progress" in moving federal agencies to electronic record keeping.

Instead, CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) said April 16 that the government is clinging to "outdated, inefficient and ineffective paper record keeping systems" when readily available off-the-shelf software is available for the task.

"The law requires the government to preserve federal records, which ultimately belong not to any single administration, but to the American people," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said in a statement. "These records, which often document serious policy matters, are being lost to future generations who might learn from them."

The summary of the report -- Record Chaos: The Deplorable State of Electronic Record Keeping in the Federal Government - said a survey of more than 400 agency records managers shows widespread ignorance of record-keeping regulations coupled with little oversight and passive management by NARA (National Archives and Records Administration), the agency in charge of ensuring compliance with the law.

"The federal government has fallen woefully behind its private-sector counterparts and NARA has failed to affirmatively assist agencies in developing and implementing records-management policies as the Federal Records Act requires," the report states. "Many agency employees do not even understand what a federal record is, much less how it must be preserved."

CREW also is battling the White House over five million missing e-mails from between March 2003 and October 2005. In addition, CREW contends that until October 2003, backup tapes allegedly containing some of the e-mails were recycled. The missing e-mails cover the start of the Iraq war, the Valerie Plame outing and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Federal agencies currently have broad discretion to determine how electronic records and communications are preserved. Since many agencies still rely on antiquated "print-and-file" systems for preserving electronic records, CREW suggests, many federal records may be lost to history.

To correct the problem, U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., introduced legislation April 16 to modernize the requirements of the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act. H.R. 5811 directs the Archivist of the United States to establish standards for the capture, management, retrieval and preservation of e-mails and other electronic communications of the White House and other federal agencies.

"H.R. 5811 will help government officials and the public have better access to the electronic communications that influence governmental decision making," Missouri Democrat William Lacy Clay, a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. "As we move forward, this bill ensures that our federal agencies and future administrations efficiently and effectively preserve their work product in a format that is easy to find and easy to reproduce."

CREW criticized the proposal as "anemic and fails to make the substantial changes necessary to bring the federal government into the 21st century."