NARA must learn to cope electronically

The software industry is exploding with new product announcements in electronic records management. Agencies are busily studying vendors' offerings, poised on the brink of commitment to taking their records management functions electronic. Everyone is awaiting the next court decision on whether, and to what extent, electronic recordkeeping will be mandatory for federal agencies.

And what is happening at the National Archives and Records Administration? NARA officials characterize the agency's records management guidance as out-of-date, overly oriented toward mainframes and influenced too much by litigation. They promise that in the future, NARA will concentrate on consultation with agencies and guidance rather than regulation.

That sounds like the beginning of an admission that today's records management realities are too big for NARA to handle alone. It also sounds as though NARA is yielding some authority to agencies.

And NARA should cede some of its authority to agencies. The past decade's federal court cases have made NARA so gun-shy that any groundbreaking action on electronic records management is virtually unthinkable unless court-ordered. Prospects for innovative NARA leadership seem overwhelmed by the fear of being hauled back into federal court by a public interest group. Judges have a way of imposing workloads that give NARA the shudders.

NARA says it is committed to a top-to-bottom business process re-engineering of its records management program during the coming fiscal year. Many observers think such a re-engineering is long overdue, particularly on the processes NARA employs to review and approve agency records schedules, which are plans for maintaining and disposing of various kinds of records.

Agencies complain that it takes three years to get NARA approval on records schedules. Even in its most recent guidance on electronic records, NARA allows itself six months to a year to review electronic records schedules.

These long processing times in today's speed-of-thought electronic world are scandalous. Pending NARA approval, agencies must hang on to records—at who knows what cost to the government—rather than possibly destroying them.

A truly open and rigorous business practices re-engineering could cause a cultural revolution at NARA. The agency has long been known for its cultural bias toward paper rather than electronic media. Only this year has NARA finally begun to study seriously the issue of archival standards for optical media. NARA still accepts permanent electronic records only in ASCII or EBCDIC formats. Convincing an agency that sees its primary mission as preserving the government's past to shift its focus toward future-oriented technological business solutions will be a tectonic upheaval.

This spring, agency records managers formed the Federal Interagency Records Management Council, a development that NARA greeted coolly. FIRM is a sensible combining of several existing groups whose activities overlapped. Perhaps, however, it is much more.

Some speculate that FIRM's creation means the onset of organized pressure on NARA. Records officers may be banding together to present a united front to demand that NARA streamline its processes to catch up with the pace of rapid movement in the records management world.

In the contemporary business environment, knowledge management occurs electronically, and that must include records management. Agencies know this and are adapting their information technology management accordingly. If NARA fails to cope efficiently with this environment, agencies will simply sail off and go their own way, leaving chaos in their wake.

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

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