From Full Text Reports: CRS — Retaining and Preserving Federal Records in a Digital Environment: Background an d Issues for Congress

Retaining and Preserving Federal Records in a Digital Environment: Background and Issues for Congress (PDF)
Source: Congressional Research Service (via Federation of American Scientists)

All federal departments and agencies create federal records “in connection with the transaction of public business.” The Federal Records Act, as amended (44 U.S.C. Chapters 21, 29, 31, and 33), requires executive branch departments and agencies to collect, retain, and preserve federal records, which provide the Administration, Congress, and the public with a history of public- policy execution and its results.

Increasing use of e-mail, social media, and other electronic media has prompted a proliferation of record creation in the federal government. The variety of electronic platforms used to create federal records, however, may complicate the technologies needed to capture and retain them. It is also unclear whether the devices and applications that agencies currently use to create and retain records will be viable in perpetuity—making access to federal records over time increasingly complicated, costly, and potentially impossible.

In recent years, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) reported records management deficiencies at federal agencies. NARA, which has government-wide records management responsibilities, found 45% of agencies were at high risk of mismanaging their records. Agencies’ inabilities to comply with federal recordkeeping laws and responsibilities may make it difficult for NARA to predict future federal archiving needs because officials may not anticipate the true volume of records, nor will they know the variety of platforms used to create those records.

The executive branch has taken steps to clarify records management responsibilities and attempted to improve recordkeeping administration. In August 2012, for example, NARA and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) jointly released a directive providing agencies with a framework for managing federal records, including both paper and electronic records.

Yet, challenges remain. Congress may have an interest in overseeing whether agencies are appropriately capturing and maintaining their federal records. Additionally, Congress may choose to revisit the laws that govern federal recordkeeping to address the variety of platforms used to create federal records. Congress may also choose to ensure that such records will be accessible to the public in perpetuity. Moreover, with the increase in the creation and use of electronic records, Congress may have an interest in examining whether agencies are taking appropriate steps to ensure the authenticity and trustworthiness of the electronic documents they create and preserve.