Records management

NARA looks to bring agency records into the 21st century

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It has been more than two years since President Barack Obama put the government on a trajectory to archive all records electronically, and the National Archives and Records Administration recently completed a round of training on a new template for determining which official email accounts should be archived as permanent records.

Following Obama's November 2011 memorandum, a subsequent directive in August 2012 from the Office of Management and Budget put NARA in charge of the effort with the goal of having all permanent records stored electronically by 2019. Additionally, the government is facing a deadline of 2016 for the storage of agency email messages in a digital format.

The new tasks have kept NARA busy. The agency updated its guidance on managing social media records in October. In early November, it posted a draft of a major revision of media formats acceptable for archival purposes, including new formats such as computer-aided design files, digital audio and video, and a long list of commonly used document formats such as Microsoft Word and PDF. An official version is expected to be shared with agencies next year.

At a Dec. 3 Government IT Forum in Washington, D.C., Don Rosen, NARA's director of policy analysis and enforcement, said the goal of much of this activity is to make it as simple as possible for people tasked with handling records at agencies to make transfers to the archive.

NARA is also trying to lead by example. It has developed an internal approach to automating archiving on its Google-based email system and hopes to entice agencies to do the same.

Existing methods of email transfer can be surprisingly primitive. Some agencies print paper versions of email messages, file them, then ship those files to NARA in accordance with established schedules. Even electronic capture and transfer often involve dragging and dropping email messages periodically from user inboxes to archive folders.

"The scale of electronic records being created requires more individual decisions than users can be reasonably expected to process in a manual way," said Meg Phillips, external affairs liaison at NARA.

By the end of the year, NARA officials hope to arrive at a comprehensive set of approaches for automatically archiving email, social media and other electronic records. They are considering rules-based automation that keys into metadata information, an analytics approach that machine-reads email content and a service-based approach built into cloud architecture, among others. Rather than being prescriptive in terms of technology, NARA is trying give agencies a menu of options from which to choose.

Another goal of the directive is to set standards for the maturity of records management programs. The issue is especially acute at the Department of Homeland Security because of its diverse components, said DHS Records Officer Tammy Hudson during a separate panel discussion at the Government IT Forum.

When DHS was created, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service had mature records management programs, but the newly formed Transportation Security Administration had to build a program from scratch. Large functions brought in from other departments -- such as customs, which formerly belonged to the Treasury Department, and immigration services, which came from the Justice Department -- had to integrate their legacy information into the DHS structure. Adding to the chaos, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was so focused on its core mission that it was unable to keep records during disaster response activities.

Two years into a records management overhaul, Hudson just about has a handle on the situation. She explained the process alongside Suzanne Gill, a senior consultant at contractor Battle Resource Management Inc. DHS has revised the mandatory records training process for new employees and contractors, which previously came at the tail end of a two-day onboarding process. Now there is an online component to the training, and employees get periodic refreshers on how to handle records.

DHS also developed a strategy to combine a group of archiving, organizing and data retrieval functions into a single suite of services.

Records, legal document discovery and the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests have historically been handled by different offices at DHS. But with support from Keith Trippie, executive director of DHS' Enterprise System Development Office, an executive council was created to bring together those stakeholders.

The process has not been finalized yet, in part because of leadership turnover at DHS. The department is getting a new CIO, a new chief privacy officer and a new general counsel, as well as a new secretary. Once the executive council is reconstituted, Hudson said she hopes the group will approve the new records management regime.

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Reader comments

Wed, Dec 4, 2013 Lawrence Medina West Coast

Let's be clear here. While NARA does write the guidance for management of Federal Records (included in 36CFR), the requirements for Agencies to "archive all records electronically" applies ONLY to Permanent records. And the estimate of the volume of Federal records that meet the requirement for Permanent retention has remained around 2-3% of ALL Federal records generated. The more onerous requirement is the push to manage electronic mail in a digital form, and to segregate the records meeting the need for Permanent retention there... a true "sorting the wheat from the chaff" issue for Federal Agencies. Most e-mail applications are not designed to easily categorize content bases on taxonomy or other searches to do this automatically, so efforts are looking at things such as "role and relationship" to help determine the requirement, but even in doing this a large volume of non-records and short term retention content is getting scooped up and retained as Permanent. It's near impossible to get a clear distinction without SOME human intervention, and this is the biggest stumbling block to success. Even in private industry, it's seen as "less expensive and easier" to simply use applications improperly referred to as 'e-mail archiving' tools and keep a copy of ALL e-mail messages. The biggest issue here is if you apply that same 2-3% rule, you end up with HUGE volumes of e-mail being retained for no purpose for lengthy periods of time at a huge cost, that are unsearchable and can result in costly requirements to review in the event of a legal action. Because it qualifies as ESI (electronically stored information) ... it must be identified when you prepare a data map and disclosed, and if you have it, it's subject to discovery. The aggressive deadlines set in the Presidential Memo need to be re-evaluated and more realistic targets should be set . With the aging Federal workforce resulting in long-term records management staff dwindling and funding at some of the lowest levels seen in decades, it seems less plausible to reach these milestones. Evaluating technology, establishing new policies and procedures, training staff and developing successful models to meet the requirements is going to take more time than allotted. And NARA has to "gear up" for the influx of all of this content and establish models to manage, store, and fund the "care and feeding" of this HUGE volume of content for decades to come.

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