Are we on the e-record?

Debate heats up about how much control employees should have over e-records

NARA Electronic Records Management (ERM) Guidance on the Web

The amount of official government business now conducted through electronic media, such as e-mail, has generated discussion among experts about the role that employees should play in deciding whether a particular file or e-mail message is an official record.

At most agencies, the primary responsibility for determining the record-worthiness of an electronic communication rests with employees. After some training, workers are expected to decide if their communications should be kept. In some cases, workers use filing software designed to simplify the process of storing records at their desktop PCs.

However, some critics argue that employees, even those who receive some training, are not qualified as records managers. They also contend that workers don’t have the time to make careful decisions about which documents should be saved as electronic records. And critics say the current process leaves the door open for employees to save only the files that show them in a positive light.

Could information technology make better decisions about what to keep? Some experts say “yes,” adding that agencies should rely almost exclusively on software that uses an electronic message’s metadata — descriptors about the message — to automatically sort, categorize and decide which files and messages should be kept as official records of the federal government. 

“There are people who believe that the only way information can be determined to be a record is for a qualified individual to look at every [potential official] record individually,” said Owen Ambur, a member of the Federal Information Record Manager Council’s board of directors. “In the electronic world, that simply is not possible. It will never happen, it can’t happen. There is too much information.”

However, some agency records managers and analysts said they believe employees must still play a large role in determining what an official federal record is. They say the sheer variety of e-mail formats, encryption methods and media, such as instant messaging, are major obstacles to a fully automated records management approach.

The myriad types of potential records mean that even with the right technology, software-only approaches to records management may be unworkable, said Paul Giles, a vice president at Stanley, an information technology consulting company that advises agencies on document and records management. “It’s kind of a pipe dream to think that you can apply it across the board to all correspondence.”

Robert Chadduck, chief technical architect at the National Archives and Records Administration’s Electronic Records Archives project, said ERA research is focused on how new technology can best be deployed to complement employees’ recordkeeping obligations. NARA is in the process of deploying ERA, which will store and archive electronic federal records in the future.

Marc Wolfe, records officer at the General Services Administration, said the biggest challenge for records managers is not developing technology. Instead, it’s getting management to focus on records collection.

Wolfe, who has more than 30 years of experience in records management, said  business pressures lead chief information officers to focus on bandwidth, machines and business productivity tools rather than back-office services such as records management. He said that prevents serious investment in the infrastructure necessary for a long-term, technology-based records management solution.

“The carrot is not attractive to the people who make the decisions on whether to buy the carrot, so perhaps it’s time for the stick,” Wolfe said. “I’m dealing with a fair amount of frustration here,” he said, adding that “it’s time for the infrastructure managers to decide whether they are going to provide the tools, or whether they are going to have a solution imposed upon them.”
4 ways to get CIOs to think about federal recordsMark Giguere has some tips for records managers who want their agencies’ chief information offiers to pay more attention to records management. Giguere, the  lead information technology policy and planning modern-records manager at the National Archives and Records Administration, offers this advice to other records managers:

  1. Participate in developing and evaluating business cases for information technology investments that produce records.
  2. Identify and incorporate recordkeeping requirements in the requirements analysis phase of IT projects.
  3. Create records management-related metrics for IT capital investments.
  4. Identify specific points where recordkeeping copies are set aside for subsequent management.

— Ben Bain

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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