Paper records in an IT world

Recently, the National Archives and Records Administration published a "Report on Current Recordkeeping Practices within the Federal Government." I served as a senior consultant on the report and want to give my own slant on the subject.

In my opinion, the good news is that basic federal recordkeeping is in pretty good shape. By and large, agency employees know what records they are supposed to keep, they keep them, and they can find them later, although often with some difficulty.

The bad news is that, almost universally, the official record format is paper. Agencies do not seem to know how to cope with electronic records even though these days the bulk of their information is born electronic.

My experience is that agencies go through the following stages in coming to grips with electronic records:

Stage 1: Let's buy a commercial off-the-shelf electronic records management (ERM) system and plug it in.

Stage 2: Uh-oh, that won't work. We can't do ERM until we do fundamental records management. And we haven't done that around here for X years, where X varies from 5 to 25. Result: A labor- intensive catch-up exercise.

Stage 3: Where do our records come from anyway? From word processing, spreadsheet, database, e-mail and Web site applications. Guess what? We can't do ERM until we integrate our ERM system into knowledge, document, e-mail and Web site management systems.

Stage 4: The ripples from ERM will be so profound that we must start with pilot experiments to understand ERM's ramifications and then move to phased implementation. We can now see that extensive business processing re- engineering will be called for.

Stage 5: Finally, we will have to train all end users in both basic records management and in our chosen ERM application, or the whole thing will fail. Training is a separate and potentially large cost, perhaps requiring investment in tailor-made, computer-based training tools.

Painful and expensive though the process is sure to be, more agencies are now going through some version of those stages because the business case for ERM has become overwhelming. It simply makes no sense to manage records solely in a paper environment while managing all other information functions in an information technology systems environment.

To act otherwise is to court the kind of disaster the FBI experienced with the Timothy McVeigh records or the debacle the Bureau of Indian Affairs is enjoying with the Indian trust fund accounting system.

The eventual payoff of ERM is summed up in NARA's current slogan: ready access to essential evidence. Keep the records you need to keep in a way that enables you to easily retrieve them and get rid of everything else once you're finished with it. That is the way any well-managed enterprise — business or government — should be running.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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