Putting records to work
- By Sara Michael
- Jun 21, 2004
In the records management community, they say that the intensity of an agency's interest in records can be directly tied to how recently the agency experienced a records disaster.
For the FBI, that rule became all too familiar.
Bureau officials took heat a few years ago when 1,000 documents related to the case of Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, were misplaced due to poor management and antiquated systems.
Similarly, the 2001 case of FBI counterintelligence officer Robert Hanssen, who admitted to spying for the former Soviet Union, highlighted the agency's lack of control over access to sensitive records. Officials also were criticized for their record handling leading up to and following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Clearly, we didn't have our act together," said William Hooton, assistant director of the FBI's Records Management Division. "We didn't even know what we had."
Although the FBI's changes were prompted by controversy, the high-profile problems resulted in an increased understanding of the importance of strong records management and an overhaul of the Records Management Division. Now bureau officials have built the division into an organization that could be a model for other agencies, leading a trend across government.
About 50 years ago, most agencies were more concerned with saving money on records management than fostering workers' skills to deal with the retention and disposal of records, said Charles Dollar, a consultant with Cohasset Associates Inc.
Eventually, the duties of the job became more clerical than professional, but controversies in the government and business sectors brought threats of litigation and an increased demand for accountability, he said.
"I really think there is a growing awareness of the importance of records management," Dollar said. He added that fines and jail time might prompt action, but an agency doesn't necessarily have to endure a catastrophe to get records in order.
Fixing the problem
The FBI's case management problems from a few years ago prompted members of Congress to tell bureau officials to get their act together, and then-Director Louis Freeh agreed, Hooton said. Freeh, who left the post in June 2001, began an overhaul of the Records Management Division, a priority carried on by his successor, Robert Mueller.
The first step was to hire records management experts, rather than train agents from the FBI's ranks. Officials wanted the most knowledgeable professionals to tackle the task, and hiring from within the bureau would have slowed the process of developing a strong division, Hooton said. The director also approved Senior Executive Service positions at the bureau, which became one of the only government agencies to have that type of top-level management in their records division.
"We didn't have time [and] I didn't want to train people," said Hooton, who was hired in 2002 from a records management software company and previously spent time at the National Archives and Records Administration. "We were able to do this because the director approved SES positions. Records management might be a grade 12 at other agencies, which is ludicrous."
Also in 2002, the director created three key positions in the division, again hiring experts in the field. Marie Allen, chief of the FBI's records policy and administration section, had served as a director at NARA, where she had oversight of all agencies' records management programs. Allen said pairing records experts with FBI employees familiar with the bureau's business was a smart move.
"The experience is extremely valuable to an agency," she said. "It makes a powerful partnership to link the external expertise with folks who know the FBI filing systems and the FBI records."
At one point, the Records Management Division was the largest division at the headquarters, with 857 employees, Hooton said. Although a few positions are still open, FBI officials have reworked the professional ladders within the bureau, allowing for more agents to qualify for positions in records management, he said.
The first tasks for FBI records managers is to get a handle on what records the bureau has filed in drawers at headquarters and to link field office warehouses, Allen said. The problem, she said, was that agents and managers didn't have sound policies that dictated when a record should be kept and for how long. Paper and electronic records piled up or got lost. For example, agents are surrounded by 1.8 million cubic feet of paper records at FBI offices worldwide, Allen said, and officials are struggling to inventory them.
"There has been a long-standing record of neglect of records management, and bringing records under control is one of our first major projects," she said. "Every field office is bulging at the seams. It's about a 100-year accumulation."
Technological advances are taking on a major role in records-retention policy and procedure. By setting retention standards, officials can build the policy into the automated systems, allowing the bureau to move entirely to electronic recordkeeping, Allen said.
"We want to have an electronic system that is authentic and reliable and trustworthy so the electronic copy is dependable, and [so] we don't have to print out everything," she said.
The case management application and final piece of the FBI's Trilogy modernization program may be the first steps on the road to exclusively electronic records. The Virtual Case File application is expected to be in place by the end of this year, and FBI officials are trying to include a records management application in the system, Hooton said. For example, a case record would include metadata that would tell the system when a record could be destroyed. Officials are hoping to have the application in the initial version of the case file, but the key is for it to be invisible to agents.
"Obviously, [records management] is not what the FBI does," Hooton said. "The FBI catches the bad guy. That's our prime business — and it should be. The folks out catching the bad guys don't want to get slowed down by anything, and I agree with that."
Records management is being incorporated into enterprise content management, particularly since technology has created forms of records, such as e-mail and instant messaging, said Rick Barry, a records management consultant and principal with Barry Associates in Arlington, Va. However, content management systems are still catching up.
"Modern enterprise content management systems afford the basis for really managing information across the enterprise in an
effective manner," Barry said. "Yet few of these have yet to provide appropriate recordkeeping functionality."
The adoption of electronic records management has been slow to catch on because records at many agencies include only
paper documents, said Kenneth Thibodeau, director of NARA's Electronic Records Archives program.
"There's a greater perception of a need to do that in a fully digital environment, but the records management community as a whole hasn't stepped up to the plate because so many of our concepts are bound up in how you manage paper," Thibodeau said. "It's a very difficult transition to get back to what you are really trying to do in records management and how you can do that effectively in a digital world."
He agreed that many agency officials need to examine applications that are hidden in the system architecture, rather than on top of it. The key is to communicate the benefit of managing records to the people in the field who must do so, he said.
"The roots of records management are in the idea that it is something you do in your own self interest," Thibodeau said.
Compared to other agencies, an interest in recordkeeping is an area where the FBI has excelled, Allen said. The culture within the bureau has become supportive of recordkeeping, and the agents are used to the notion that the records are necessary. The bureau now has more resources and top managers' support than other agencies, Allen said.
"I think the FBI is putting more resources under records management than any other agency in the government right now," she said. "I think we will end up having one of the best records management programs in the government. We're not there yet."
Other agencies that faced major litigation over records management tended to pour resources into the program, Allen said. "Sometimes it takes a wake-up call like a McVeigh case," she said.
Once bureau officials have a handle on how many records there are and have established sound policies for retention, they must ensure the structure endures. Officials have established a new records liaison position in each field office to provide guidance and oversight of records management. The first group of liaisons is being trained, and officials plan to include records management as part of the online
FBI Academy class offerings, which are available from each agent's desktop computer, Allen said.
"I think that builds a structure that will make the FBI succeed in the future," she said. "I trust and hope we will never see the days again that we inherited."