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Electronic recordsStoring government records for generations to come

Published 4 September 2012

A White House directive released last week requires that federal agencies adopt systems which will store and manage all electronic records in order to keep them safe and secure for future generations

A White House directive released last week requires that federal agencies adopt systems which will store and manage all electronic records in order to keep them safe and secure for future generations.

At this time, most agencies use paper copies of documents and other records they are legally required to maintain. Mashable reports that the problem is that the existing format may keep records from being accessible thirty years from now when agencies are required to turn them in to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

according to Jeff Zients, the Office of Management and Budget acting director, the guidelines give agencies until the end of 2016 to store all e-mail in electronic formats, and until 15 November 2012 to select an official responsible for beefing up their electronic records and management programs.

The officials which are elected must go through National Archives training and must develop training programs for agency employees.

Anne Weismann, chief counsel at the Center for Responsibility and Ethics, thinks the directive gives new importance to the filing records. “Records management just isn’t given enough priority within agencies and it differs from agency to agency,” she said.“The concept here — and the same thing was done with [Freedom of Information Act compliance] — is to elevate it to a senior level, to stress its importance and to have more accountability, and I think that’s a great step.”

Weismann is happy with the directive, but she is unhappy with the deadline stated in the directive. “They could have said 2014 and that still wouldn’t have been fast enough for me, but I could have lived with it,” she said. “But this is a very long deadline. I think it’s very easy for agencies not to do this. It’s an area where agencies don’t want to spend their limited dollars and I think they need a huge push.”

The directive has also added a 2013 deadline for the Archives to issue guidance on permanent storage of electronic records, including the metadata agencies should include in those records

Metadata is information about the creation of a document or other digital product. Examples include information about the creation of a Word document, of the date and time stamp on digital photos.

The guidance must also make electronically stored records searchable.

The government is currently making a serious push to transfer its computer storage to off-site computer clouds, which can hold more information at a cheaper price than on-site data centers.

According to Weismann, the government’s adoption of cloud storage is not focused enough on making sure that the stored material is accessible to the public.

“Imagine a closet where you open it up and throw a bunch of papers in,” she said. “You’re preserving everything, but you can’t find everything and that’s a concern.”

Almost 95 percent of government agencies have failed to meet current requirements for maintaining their electronic records, according to a NARA estimate based on agency self-assessments.

For most agencies, storing electronic records is difficult because the technology to read and store them is expensive, and with the quick turnover of computer programs, the technology to store them could change every year or two.