FBI foul-up sends message

The FBI recently got a painful reminder of the business case for good records management. The agency revealed the existence of more than 3,000 pages of previously undisclosed records in the Oklahoma City bombing case less than a week before Timothy McVeigh's scheduled May 16 execution. The incident delayed the execution at least several weeks, further undermined public confidence in the FBI, revealed serious agency management deficiencies and fueled conspiracy theories for decades to come.

The FBI revelations also exemplified a widespread conundrum: Why does it take a major management disaster before agencies pay serious attention to records management in general and electronic records management in particular?

Scratch any recent federal management debacle and you will find severe records-management deficiencies underneath. The Indian trust funds? Records missing, lost or just never kept. Toxic waste cleanup? Pitifully inadequate records management. Poor records management equals a disaster waiting to happen.

Indeed, savvy government managers ought to recognize that sloppy recordkeeping is a warning signal and a harbinger of catastrophe over the horizon.

Information technology managers seem so accustomed to coping with today's IT demands and planning for tomorrow's growth that they are incapable of considering the need for efficient access to yesterday's data.

Whether it is knowledge management, electronic document management, work flow or data warehousing systems, IT planners and other managers must factor in the ability to retrieve records accurately and fully from last month, last year, or five, 10 or 20 years ago.

Records management is the law; it's the Federal Records Act. But telling feds that something is legally required does not serve as management motivation. After all, everything agencies do is in some sense legally required or they wouldn't be doing it.

It is the business case for good electronic records management that has become more compelling. It is the proposition that corporate memory functions need automation just as urgently as do other business processes. It is the utter absurdity of managing records in a 19th century paper environment when all other information resources are managed in an IT systems environment. And it is the fact that bad records management is just plain bad management.

Why do these lessons continue to elude so many otherwise enlightened government managers? I have no answers, but too many chief information officers mistakenly put records management at the bottom of their priority list.

The FBI's experience is a cautionary tale. All federal CIOs should ask themselves this: If the public spotlight was shone on my agency and we were asked to perform an exhaustive search for certain records, would our IT systems serve us well? Would we fare any better than the FBI?

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

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