General Accountability Office GAO

1 Most electronic records remained unscheduled
Risk: waste of records of historical value

As reported in GAO's past work, most electronic records-including databases of major federal information systems-remained unscheduled: that is, their value had not been assessed, and their disposition-to destruction or archives-had not been determined. In addition, records of historical value were not being identified and provided to NARA; as a result, they were at risk of loss. NARA has begun to address these problems by taking steps to improve federal records management programs; among other things, it has (1) updated guidance to reflect new types of electronic records, (2) devised a strategy for raising awareness among senior agency management of the importance of good federal records management, and (3) devised a comprehensive approach to improving agency records management that includes inspections and identification of risks and priorities. Through these and other actions, NARA is making progress, but its approach to improving records management does not include provisions for using inspections to evaluate the efficacy of its governmentwide guidance, and an implementation plan for the approach has yet to be established. Without these elements, the risk is increased that federal recordsmanagement problems will persist.

2 No policies, plans and practices to guide an expert IT system acquisition
Risk: system does not meet user expectations

In addition to its efforts to improve records management, NARA is also acquiring ERA as a means to archive all types of electronic records and make them accessible. GAO found, however, that NARA faces significant challenges in acquiring ERA, a major information system. While NARA has made progress in building its organizational capabilities for acquiring major information systems, it has not developed adequate policies, plans and practices to guide the ERA acquisition or established the means to track the cost and schedule of the project. Unless NARA addresses these and other issues, the ERA system may not meet user expectations, and NARA may not have the information required to control the cost of the system or the time it will take to complete it.

3 Insufficient automation in managing large volumes of data
Effective management is not possible

Electronic records are increasingly being created in volumes that pose a significant technical challenge to our ability to organize them and make them accessible. For example, among the candidates for archiving are military intelligence records comprising more than 1 billion electronic messages, reports, cables, and memorandums, as well as over 50 million electronic court case files. Managing such large volumes is clearly not possible without automation.

4 Control of electronic records is difficult in a decentralized computing environment

The challenge of managing electronic records significantly increases with the decentralization of the computing environment. In the centralized environment of a mainframe computer, it is easier to identify, assess, and manage electronic records than it is in the decentralized environment of agencies' office automation systems, where every user is creating electronic files that may constitute a formal record and thus should be preserved.

5 Obsolescent and aging storage media put electronic records at risk

Storage media are affected by the dual problems of obsolescence and decay. They are fragile, have limited shelf life, and become obsolete in a few years. For example, few computers today have disk drives that can read information stored on 8- or 51/4-inch diskettes, even if the diskettes themselves remain readable.

6 Complexity of electronic records precludes simple transfer to text formats
Risk: lost context, functionality and information

Electronic records have evolved from simple text-based files to complex digital objects that may contain embedded images (still and moving), drawings, sounds, hyperlinks, or spreadsheets with computational formulas. Some portions of electronic records, such as the content of dynamic Web pages, are created on the fly from databases and exist only during the viewing session. Others, such as E-mail, may contain multiple attachments, and they may be threaded (that is, related E-mail messages are linked into send-reply chains). These records cannot be converted to paper or text formats without the loss of context, functionality, and information.

7 Electronic records are dependent on evolving software and hardware

Electronic records are created on computers with software ranging from word-processors to E-mail programs. As computer hardware and application software become obsolete, they may leave behind electronic records that cannot be read without the original hardware and software.


NARA's mission is to ensure "ready access to essential evidence" for the public, the president, the Congress, and the Courts. NARA's responsibilities stem from the Federal Records Act,4 which requires each federal agency to make and preserve records that

- document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency and

- provide the information necessary to protect the legal and financial rights of the government and of persons directly affected by the agency's activities.

Federal records must be managed to ensure that the information that they contain is available when needed. According to NARA, without effective records management, the records needed to document citizens' rights, actions for which federal officials are responsible, and the historical experience of the nation will be at risk of loss, deterioration, or destruction.

Records management is defined as the policies, procedures, guidance, tools and techniques, resources, and training needed to design and maintain reliable and trustworthy records systems. Records must be managed throughout their life cycle: from creation, through maintenance and use, to final disposition. Temporary records -those used in everyday operations but lacking historic value-are ultimately destroyed. Permanent records-those judged to be of historic value-are preserved through archiving.

With NARA's oversight and assistance, each agency is responsible for managing its own records at all phases of the life cycle, with the exception of the archiving of permanent records (which is NARA's responsibility)


GAO was requested to testify, among other things, on NARA's recent actions to address the challenges of electronic records management, including its effort to address the problem of preserving electronic records by acquiring an advanced Electronic Records Archive (ERA).

The items above were selected and named by the e-Government Subgroup of the EUROSAI IT Working Group on the basis of publicly available report of the author Supreme Audit Institutions (SAI). In the same way, the Subgroup prepared the analytical assumptions and headings. All readers are encouraged to consult the original texts by the author SAIs (linked).