Is a paperless government by 2019 too much to ask?

Bluntly put, a paperless government in seven years will be very hard to achieve -- possibly impossible -- although the National Archives and Records Administration deserves kudos for suggesting the grand vision, a records management company expert said Aug. 27.

President Barack Obama released a records management directive Aug. 24, in which he handed agencies two goals.

One is that the federal government be paperless by Dec. 31, 2019. Agencies will need to manage all their permanent records electronically‑to the fullest extent possible‑for eventual transfer and accessioning by NARA in an electronic format. Officials must have plans to do so by Dec. 31, 2013.

The other is that agencies will manage permanent and temporary email records in an accessible electronic format by Dec. 31, 2016. Officials will have to retain their email records in an appropriate electronic system that supports records management and litigation requirements, including the ability to identify and retrieve records “for as long as they are needed.”

Also, beginning one year from now, each agency must report annually to the Office of Management and Budget and NARA on the status of its progress toward the goals.

This directive will take a lot of money, IT and employee training, said Mary Murley, program manager at Iron Mountain Consulting Services.

“The directive proposes an ambitious vision for creating a digital foundation,” she said. “This is an enormous undertaking for all agencies involved. It will not be easy, and it will require significant time, resources and budget.”

Federal officials see the initiative as turning point in management history.

“This is an historic moment for all of us charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the records of the country are being managed in a manner that will allow current and future generations to hold their government accountable and to learn from the past,” David Ferriero, U.S. Archivist, wrote Aug. 24 on his AOTUS National Archives blog.

The president writes in the memo that “records protect the rights and interests of people and hold officials accountable for their actions. Permanent records document our nation’s history” and “well-managed records can be used to assess the impact of programs, to improve business processes, and to share knowledge across the government.”

“Records are the foundation of open government, supporting the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration,” he adds.

The vision is grand, but it may be too grand to accomplish. There is a path to success, however, Murley said.

“It can be found by incorporating many of the records management best practices proven out in private industry, including: senior level accountability, organization-wide training requirements, stronger/stricter record retention schedules, and more,” she said.

According to a survey of 100 federal records managers in July, 93 percent of them said their agencies have prioritized improving records management processes and 85 percent said they personally support the president’s memo from November, which set off the change in how the Executive Branch views its records. Along with creating new records management systems that use new technologies, the memo from November directed agencies to appoint a senior official to work with NARA and supervise the records reforms.

In the survey though, records managers overall were confident in their skills for record-keeping, but they have their weak spots. Only 9 percent said they were “very strong” when it came to using cloud-based applications to store data, and only 51 percent are comfortable in their ability to store and manage electronic data too.

But the hurdles linger: money and support. The success of the directive from 2011 may rest on federal records managers’ developing new skills as 71 percent cited a need for training as their top concern. Sixty-eight and 61 percent named staff and budget resources, respectively, as additional worries.

Those problems may hinder this directive too. Agencies have to have enough money to invest in developing the new electronic system, as well as working with consultants on how to proceed. They need the technology, the resources and training if they plan to comply with the seven-year deadline, Murley said.

Meanwhile, agencies are preparing for the immediate future to survive for several months under a continuing resolution. They don’t see growth in their budgets as the administration, though in its last leg of this term, has agencies continuing to scratch away layer after layer of spending to survive the budget crunch.

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Reader comments

Wed, Aug 29, 2012 Lawrence Medina

Been following this since the Presidential Memo was written, submitted comments then and again when the draft went out and now, the final. While I fully comprehend the desire to achieve many of the objectives listed, I have the same concerns now I had then. The largest issue is no one properly scoped the effort required to achieve the goals (assessing volume of permanent and temporary records throughout the various Agencies, in physical format (including microfilm and fiche) repositories. That doesn't even touch what exists in active electronic systems... but the bigger concern is the effort required to address LEGACY content. Many legacy systems are no longer supported and procedures need to be developed to extract their content. The majority of these systems have been kept 'alive' because the content is thought to be of Permanent value, but no one bothered to migrate it forward to viable media or accessible systems as required in 36CFR. In addition, NextGov pointed out the cost and effort challenges in conversion http://www.nextgov.com/big-data/2012/06/va-will-need-4000-personnel-scan-backlogged-paper-records/56347/ This real world example is but one small portion of a single agency's content. Once the effort of conversion of source materials to electronic formats is completed, the directives makes is sound as if digital copies will become THE "originals" and source materials may be discarded, which is contrary to all but a limited number of conversion efforts under present 36CFR guidance. There are many examples in the recent past of corruption, loss and damage occurring with digital repositories. There are also extensive costs for replicating or mirroring content and periodic conversion/migration and refreshing to avoid obsolescence of format, media and degradation that occurs over 5, 10, 15 years. How is NARA planning on budgeting to stay ahead of this to ensure persistent access to critical information sources and to protect historic, intrinsic and enduring records? I'm unsure if there has been sufficient concern given to the unrealistic nature of the milestones presented given the lack of staffing in RM in Federal Agencies, and the severe lack of funding. Also, with a large volume of Federal Records being generated and managed by Contractors to Federal Agencies, funds will have to be provided to them to staff up to meet any of these requirements passed along to them or their first tier Subcontractors, many of whom generate and manage Permanent records. Most of them have existing contracts with requirements in them, but naturally NONE OF THEM include the language in this new Directive- and even once it is included in 36CFR, it will result in new requirements for in-force contracts that will need to be evaluated and funded, prior to being included as a requirement. All of this puts many of the scheduled implementation and completion dates in jeopardy.

Wed, Aug 29, 2012

The Federal Government may not be paperless, but it is the mission of our agency to help move Department of Defense to a paperless environment. One of the tools we are using at DLA Document Services is an OpenText product that we have branded as DACS (Document Automated Content Services). We provide this as an online service which is capable of wrapping records management and online work flow around a users electronic content. With the added emphasis of becoming audit ready we feel this is a product that DoD can use to meet many of its needs.

Tue, Aug 28, 2012 Steve Flyover Country

Now I know where to invest my 401K money. Every time in the past that there has been a big push to move towards paperless offices, the demand for paper ended up increasing significantly. Now's the time to be investing in paper companies.

Tue, Aug 28, 2012

We could just give Adobe billons of dollars, like we do to Microsoft, and perhaps we'll get something outta it.

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