Is a paperless government by 2019 too much to ask?

Bluntly put, a paperless government in seven years will be very hard to achieve -- possibly impossible -- although the National Archives and Records Administration deserves kudos for suggesting the grand vision, a records management company expert said Aug. 27.

President Barack Obama released a records management directive Aug. 24, in which he handed agencies two goals.

One is that the federal government be paperless by Dec. 31, 2019. Agencies will need to manage all their permanent records electronically‑to the fullest extent possible‑for eventual transfer and accessioning by NARA in an electronic format. Officials must have plans to do so by Dec. 31, 2013.

The other is that agencies will manage permanent and temporary email records in an accessible electronic format by Dec. 31, 2016. Officials will have to retain their email records in an appropriate electronic system that supports records management and litigation requirements, including the ability to identify and retrieve records “for as long as they are needed.”

Also, beginning one year from now, each agency must report annually to the Office of Management and Budget and NARA on the status of its progress toward the goals.

This directive will take a lot of money, IT and employee training, said Mary Murley, program manager at Iron Mountain Consulting Services.

“The directive proposes an ambitious vision for creating a digital foundation,” she said. “This is an enormous undertaking for all agencies involved. It will not be easy, and it will require significant time, resources and budget.”

Federal officials see the initiative as turning point in management history.

“This is an historic moment for all of us charged with the responsibility of ensuring that the records of the country are being managed in a manner that will allow current and future generations to hold their government accountable and to learn from the past,” David Ferriero, U.S. Archivist, wrote Aug. 24 on his AOTUS National Archives blog.

The president writes in the memo that “records protect the rights and interests of people and hold officials accountable for their actions. Permanent records document our nation’s history” and “well-managed records can be used to assess the impact of programs, to improve business processes, and to share knowledge across the government.”

“Records are the foundation of open government, supporting the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration,” he adds.

The vision is grand, but it may be too grand to accomplish. There is a path to success, however, Murley said.

“It can be found by incorporating many of the records management best practices proven out in private industry, including: senior level accountability, organization-wide training requirements, stronger/stricter record retention schedules, and more,” she said.

According to a survey of 100 federal records managers in July, 93 percent of them said their agencies have prioritized improving records management processes and 85 percent said they personally support the president’s memo from November, which set off the change in how the Executive Branch views its records. Along with creating new records management systems that use new technologies, the memo from November directed agencies to appoint a senior official to work with NARA and supervise the records reforms.

In the survey though, records managers overall were confident in their skills for record-keeping, but they have their weak spots. Only 9 percent said they were “very strong” when it came to using cloud-based applications to store data, and only 51 percent are comfortable in their ability to store and manage electronic data too.

But the hurdles linger: money and support. The success of the directive from 2011 may rest on federal records managers’ developing new skills as 71 percent cited a need for training as their top concern. Sixty-eight and 61 percent named staff and budget resources, respectively, as additional worries.

Those problems may hinder this directive too. Agencies have to have enough money to invest in developing the new electronic system, as well as working with consultants on how to proceed. They need the technology, the resources and training if they plan to comply with the seven-year deadline, Murley said.

Meanwhile, agencies are preparing for the immediate future to survive for several months under a continuing resolution. They don’t see growth in their budgets as the administration, though in its last leg of this term, has agencies continuing to scratch away layer after layer of spending to survive the budget crunch.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.


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