Feds seek plug-and-play to capture and save data

Faced with recent court decisions that require the government to keep better track of its electronic files and the voluminous information those files contain federal agencies are now looking for solutions in the emerging electronic records management market.

While specialty software tools and custom solutions have been available to agency record-keepers and archivists for many years the government only recently has begun to consider how to integrate record-keeping into the applications that employees use daily.

With that developing demand vendors of traditional records management packages are starting to provide tools for hooking this software into common office automation software including e-mail workflow and document management systems. But each package addresses record-keeping needs in different ways and there are no plug-and-play solutions.

"The answer depends on what the business is " said Richard Barry a former World Bank employee who now consults on digital records management issues. Small organizations that have simple requirements may be satisfied with an "off-the-shelf approach " but a "major integration project" is more likely to satisfy agencies' unique document preservation requirements. "An in-between approach is to buy or lease an enterprise document management system " Barry said but "some of these products don't come with good tool kits" to add record-keeping applications to them.

John Bernstein a records manager with the Environmental Protection Agency's Chicago office said he and a colleague once tried to write a macro for their e-mail system that would prompt users to assign their messages to the proper record-keeping category before sending them. "That was unsuccessful " he said.

Today the regional office is testing two record-keeping packages - Trim from Tower Software Corp. and ForeMost from Provenance Systems Inc. - that have gateways to popular office automation applications. Capturing Information Records management professionals in the field explained involves more than keeping track of multiple versions of documents as they are created or automating the flow of information as it moves from person to person. A true electronic record-keeping system they said will capture information about the subject creator and recipient of each document catalog it and determine where and how long it should be kept.

Such systems will either prompt end users to file the digital documents they exchange during their work or automatically copy them to a database where they would be catalogued by agency records officers. Over the years such criteria have been built into many individual applications.

Robert Koch director of communications with Northrop Grumman Data Systems said his firm built record-retention rules into the Service Center Recognition/Image Processing System it designed for the Internal Revenue Service almost five years ago.

Gregory Powell a project officer with the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Freedom of Information Act Office said his records management requirements have been easily met by storing electronic case files on optical platters for as many years as the law requires them to be kept. "To me that was the cheapest and most logical" solution he said because the documents his office creates fall into only two retention categories.

But to date agencies have not installed record-keeping systems that can be adapted to multiple mission-related applications which means many electronic records are either being deleted left on employees' hard drives or stored unorganized on servers tapes and discs.

"Electronic records management is a relatively new technology " said John McCarthy director of sales and marketing with Provenance. Many information technology managers were not aware of it until recently and "it was not part of the IT infrastructure."

The Defense Department is the first to attempt to bring electronic records management into that infrastructure through a set of functional requirements for record-keeping systems that could become a governmentwide standard. By certifying software packages that conform to the standard DOD would leave IT records managers free to select one that also meets their business needs.

"I think most of the records management people are not going to be able to make the educated decisions on this without some support in the form of standards " said Dean Bundy a records manager with the Naval Research Laboratory and co-chairman of an interagency working group on the subject.

Next month NRL plans to roll out a World Wide Web-based records management application that will serve as a testbed for the agency. Setting Standards In some ways the evolution of electronic record-keeping tools coincides with efforts by federal agencies and private companies to set standards for all their information systems.

John Davenport an Energy Department management analyst said one of his department's main goals for its future digital record-keeping systems is that they conform to the DOE-wide IT architecture. "It's basically going to allow us to deliver information to various businesses within the department " he said as well as make it easier to locate records that the agency is releasing to the public through a major declassification initiative.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is looking for electronic record-keeping software that it can integrate with workflow and document management software it purchased from FileNet Corp. so the agency can make its procedures for licensing nuclear power plants paperless.

Although the NRC can accept electronic documents its lack of an electronic record-keeping system has meant only paper can be kept in its official files and employees have to do research using microfiche said Brenda Shelton chief of the agency's information and records management branch.

Emerging industry software standards meanwhile may help to produce more products from which agencies can choose. For example said Ed McNierney chief technology officer with Eastman Software interoperability standards like those developed for document management systems allow vendors to build applications that can be added as modules to agencies' chosen software platforms.

"The problem right now is because document access standards are very new there isn't a standard way to connect a records management policy to document management " he said. Those technology standards may be critical. "It makes organizations less cautious about having to select exactly the right family of packages " said Dan Graser who heads the NRC's document applications section. "There's still a lot of holdover in senior management's brain about proprietary approaches [and standards] reduce the amount of resistance they have in making the investment."

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