Access and Feeds

Records Management: NARA Grapples with Huge Volumes of Documents and Records

By Dick Weisinger

The National Archives (NARA) is struggling to keep up with managing the massive body of data as records created by government agencies.

Records Management has become a serious problem for the federal government.  David Ferriero, Chief Archivist of the United States at National Archives (NARA), said that “Records Management must be taken seriously and not as an afterthought by all federal agencies.  Two years ago we asked 245 federal agencies and their components to do a self-assessment of their records management programs, and the results were disturbing.  Of the vast majority of agencies who responded, 95 percent were at high to moderate risk of compromising the integrity, authenticity and reliability of their records.”

Since becoming the 10th Chief archivist at NARA in 2009, Ferriero has tried to architect change in how the government deals with records and controlled documents.

NARA, for example, is working  more closely with the Federal Chief Information Officers Council.  They have also initiated additional centralized services that can be contracted out to federal agencies, such as scanning.  NARA performs scanning for the Veterans Benefits Administration and is looking to extend those services to other agencies in the future.

A major task that NARA must confront is how to deal with document categorization and classification of the massive body of documents and data that it manages.  The method ofor categorizing and classifying documents across federal government agencies has perhaps become one of the most complex of any organization anywhere.  In an effort to standardize document categorization, NARA has recently created a registry of 85 different markings into which controlled unclassified documents are categorized.

The agency also is trying to streamline the processing and management of documents and records.  The NARA website comments that current processes for managing unclassified documents are very ad hoc and agency-specific.  “This approach has created inefficiency and confusion, leading to a patchwork system that fails to adequately safeguard information requiring protection, and unnecessarily restricts information sharing by creating needless impediments.”

Declassifying documents, in particular, has become a thorn in the side of NARA.  The current process is manual and extremely time consuming.  Declassification typically involves page-level reviews of each document.  There’s currently a huge backlog of documents which need to be reviewed for declassification.  NARA is working closely with agencies like the Army, DIA, USAF, NSA, CIA, JCS, and WHS to help speed up the declassification process.  In the last few months of 2011, more than 4 million pages were reviewed and declassified.  But Paul Brachfield, Inspector General at the National Archives, notes that “Such a manually intensive process is likely to be overwhelmed by the vast troves of electronic records warranting public access which are slated to flow into the Base ERA from federal agencies.”

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