One day, Americans visiting the National Archives in Washington may be able to view only digital copies of government documents on computer screens. (Matt McClain for The Washington Post)

President Obama on Monday ordered agencies to make wider use of digital-based record-keeping systems in what aides promise will be the most significant change to government archiving since Harry S. Truman’s presidency.

“The current federal records management system is based on an outdated approach involving paper and filing cabinets,” Obama said in a statement announcing the orders. “Today’s action will move the process into the digital age so the American public can have access to clear and accurate information about the decisions and actions of the federal government.”

The government’s electronic archives top 142 terabytes of data, or 14,200 gigabytes. By comparison, the Library of Congress has accumulated 254 terabytes of data and more than 20 years’ worth of images captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope account for more than 45 terabytes, enough to fill 5,800 DVDs.

The National Archives and Records Administration stores about 475 million pages of digital records annually, according to the White House, but the agency recently warned that agencies are behind in efforts to digitize records, meaning that they do not comply with legal requirements under the Federal Records Act.

In response, White House aides said Obama will give agency chiefs four months to draft plans to improve records-management programs, to be followed by specific government-wide instructions on how to make record-keeping “more cost-effective and accessible to the public and on transitioning from paper-based records to electronic records where appropriate,” according to a draft copy of Obama’s order.

The plans are designed to eventually cut federal spending on record-keeping, but aides familiar with the goals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, could not say how much money might be saved.

Obama’s orders are part of an ongoing push to demonstrate White House resolve in addressing the lagging economy and concerns about federal spending. As part of the the “We Can’t Wait” initiative, orders have been issued on curtailing government office waste, expanding the health-care workforce and providing job opportunities for military veterans.

Monday’s announcement “sounds like a sensible evolutionary step forward,” said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and director of its Project on Government Secrecy. “Some people might even be surprised that it hasn’t already been accomplished,” he said. “But the wheels of the bureaucracy turn slowly.”

Although the project may inevitably save money, Aftergood warned that the digitization process could prove costly. “Digital record-keeping also raises new issues about record authentication, integrity and preservation that need to be addressed,” he said.

Anne Weismann, general counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said: “The big question is where agencies will come up with the necessary funds to make the transfer to electronic record-keeping.” CREW is one of the groups that the National Archives and the Office of Management and Budget will consult on how to properly digitize records, White House aides said.

Weismann said her group hopes the administration will address its concerns that the OMB’s digital push and the administration’s plans to move agencies to cloud-based computing systems could come at the expense of the Archives’s guidance on proper government record-keeping.

Despite those concerns, Monday’s announcement could be a boon for the Archives, which is facing a multi-year reorganization and earned the lowest ratings of any large federal agency in a recent survey of federal employees.

Archivist David Ferriero, appointed to the job in 2009, said in a recent interview that his agency is still adjusting to the digital revolution.

“We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for a long time and we haven’t been looking at what others are doing and we haven’t been sharing what we’re doing,” he said.

During recent visits to his dozen regional offices, Ferriero said workers feared that the agency isn’t enhancing their skills to meet 21st-century demands.

For some people, the ongoing push to digitize “is a breath of fresh air,” he said, “and for other people, it’s an issue of dealing with change.”

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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