Want to avoid storage charges? Lose the paper records

Events are conspiring to push federal agencies ever closer to serious implementation of electronic records management.

First, federal courts are turning up the heat with more decisions whose collective import is that paper-based record-keeping is no longer a satisfactory way to manage federal electronic records. In the midst of this litigation, the Office of Management and Budget has added a new push of its own.

From time immemorial, the National Archives and Records Administration's budget has contained funds to cover the charges on space for agencies' records held in temporary storage at Federal Records Centers (FRCs), which are operated by NARA.

In the recent budget passbacks, OMB decreed that, effective in fiscal 2000, agencies will have to pay these space charges out of their own budgets, and their budgets will not be increased to cover those charges. A few agencies appealed the OMB edict, and the appeals were denied.

In October 1999, agencies will begin eating the costs of storing all those paper records in FRCs. At the moment, agencies are scrambling to figure out how much it is going to cost them and from what sources they will scrounge the money.

This new development hits some agencies harder than others. The Social Security Administration has 850,000 cubic feet of temporary records at FRCs. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has paper records on about 20 million aliens at FRCs, not to mention its other recordkeeping. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that it has about 50,000 cubic feet of paper records in FRCs.

The Internal Revenue Service stores 3.5 million cubic feet of temporary records at FRCs, and the IRS has been paying space charges for these records for some years. The rest of the Treasury Department owns about 725,000 cubic feet of temporary records at FRCs, for which they will start to pay space charges. The Department of Veterans Affairs is taking care of its own temporary records storage, and it is already renting out space to other agencies.

Not surprisingly, the heaviest hit of all is the Defense Department, which has more than 4.3 million cubic feet of records in temporary storage at FRCs.

NARA is working out the rate for space charges on an agency-by-agency basis. Ten agencies will have to pay special surcharges to cover higher levels of service because they more frequently recall their records from FRCs. NARA expects to inform each agency in the near future what its space charge bill will be.

From what I can gather, the bills will not be high enough to bankrupt any agency. But they will be more than pocket change— running in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for mid-size agencies to tens of millions of dollars for the very large agencies.

In any event, the charges will be a sufficient annoyance in new annual overhead costs to make federal information resources managers ask: Why are we hanging onto all that paper in the first place? And as we design new information systems, can't we figure out ways to avoid paper storage altogether? For example, some agencies are waking up to the fact that if they had their records lodged temporarily on optical media, they would have plenty of space in their own offices to store the records, and they could avoid the space charges.

In other words, agencies are saying to themselves: Why aren't we moving to electronic and/or optical records storage for our own management purposes, regardless of what the federal courts and NARA are doing?

For its own penny-pinching reasons, OMB has handed agencies a new incentive to shift toward electronic records management. If they do so, agencies can avoid the space charges for temporary storage of paper records.

OMB also may be causing a boomlet in the commercial records storage industry because agencies can outsource temporary storage if they can find others to handle the function less expensively. They can outsource to other agencies such as VA or to private firms which, I'm sure, will be happy to take the federal business.

-- Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@intr.net.

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