Digital doc advice tops new agenda

The National Archives and Records Administration plans to reorganize its Office of Records Services and focus more attention on helping agencies to manage their electronic records.

"We're trying to figure out the best way to get electronic records to permeate everything we do " said Michael Miller director of NARA's Records Management Program. "We know we need to provide a lot of additional guidance."

Improving the advice it gives agencies about how they should manage their burgeoning electronic files is among the goals the agency has set for itself under the Government Performance and Results Act Miller said. The Office of Records Services is in charge of processing storing and maintaining records and thus has a major influence on how agencies prepare and preserve documents of all kinds.

"We capture a lot of this information but we really don't know how to manage it " said Chuck Arnason senior policy analyst with the Defense Department's Office of the Assistant Secretary for Command Control Communications and Intelligence. As do other agencies DOD creates documents in multiple formats including video and digital images but NARA only has standards for basic text Arnason noted.

An internal NARA study group that convened earlier this year suggested the agency put more effort into developing standards for new electronic environments such as the World Wide Web and shared interagency systems as well as researching ways to incorporate record-keeping into system design.

In its final report provided to FCW dated April 1 the study group wrote that "information technology has created major challenges to life-cycle management of records " and "continuing technological change will exacerbate the challenges."

Eddie Becker a researcher who is among several plaintiffs suing NARA to change its rules for maintaining electronic rec-ords said agencies "are doing a better job now than they did in the past " but he worries that without strong guidance the public might lose access to important digital documents being created.

Last year a coalition of public-interest groups historians and researchers challenged NARA's policy on electronic documents contending that NARA allows agencies to delete historically valuable records. The case was heard in a U.S. District Court in June but the judge has yet to issue a ruling.

Miller said NARA has regulations pending in three areas: the creation and maintenance of electronic records managing Web sites and functional requirements for record-keeping systems. But he provided no dates for when these rules would be issued in final form because the records services office reorganization would have to be completed first.

The reorganization will probably take place within the "next couple of months " Miller said.

Setting out systems requirements is "one of the high-priority items we have " Miller said but NARA will not provide any specific software recommendations. Instead NARA may refer agencies to systems that pass an upcoming test by DOD of how well commercial software packages support its own records management architecture. That test is planned for sometime this fall.

Arnason said however that different parts of DOD still have to agree on what these systems should be able to do. Among the most important elements of any system he said are capturing and storing records automatically when created without making extra work for the "soldier sailor [or] airman doing business in the theater."

According to the NARA study group report the records services office has numerous other decisions to make including how to use the Internet and other formats to distribute regulations electronically whether to have a plan for temporarily storing agencies' electronic records and whether to develop a new system that would track how well agencies are managing their documents.

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