Records management

NARA looks to bring agency records into the 21st century

Placeholder Image for Article Template

It has been more than two years since President Barack Obama put the government on a trajectory to archive all records electronically, and the National Archives and Records Administration recently completed a round of training on a new template for determining which official email accounts should be archived as permanent records.

Following Obama's November 2011 memorandum, a subsequent directive in August 2012 from the Office of Management and Budget put NARA in charge of the effort with the goal of having all permanent records stored electronically by 2019. Additionally, the government is facing a deadline of 2016 for the storage of agency email messages in a digital format.

The new tasks have kept NARA busy. The agency updated its guidance on managing social media records in October. In early November, it posted a draft of a major revision of media formats acceptable for archival purposes, including new formats such as computer-aided design files, digital audio and video, and a long list of commonly used document formats such as Microsoft Word and PDF. An official version is expected to be shared with agencies next year.

At a Dec. 3 Government IT Forum in Washington, D.C., Don Rosen, NARA's director of policy analysis and enforcement, said the goal of much of this activity is to make it as simple as possible for people tasked with handling records at agencies to make transfers to the archive.

NARA is also trying to lead by example. It has developed an internal approach to automating archiving on its Google-based email system and hopes to entice agencies to do the same.

Existing methods of email transfer can be surprisingly primitive. Some agencies print paper versions of email messages, file them, then ship those files to NARA in accordance with established schedules. Even electronic capture and transfer often involve dragging and dropping email messages periodically from user inboxes to archive folders.

"The scale of electronic records being created requires more individual decisions than users can be reasonably expected to process in a manual way," said Meg Phillips, external affairs liaison at NARA.

By the end of the year, NARA officials hope to arrive at a comprehensive set of approaches for automatically archiving email, social media and other electronic records. They are considering rules-based automation that keys into metadata information, an analytics approach that machine-reads email content and a service-based approach built into cloud architecture, among others. Rather than being prescriptive in terms of technology, NARA is trying give agencies a menu of options from which to choose.

Another goal of the directive is to set standards for the maturity of records management programs. The issue is especially acute at the Department of Homeland Security because of its diverse components, said DHS Records Officer Tammy Hudson during a separate panel discussion at the Government IT Forum.

When DHS was created, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service had mature records management programs, but the newly formed Transportation Security Administration had to build a program from scratch. Large functions brought in from other departments -- such as customs, which formerly belonged to the Treasury Department, and immigration services, which came from the Justice Department -- had to integrate their legacy information into the DHS structure. Adding to the chaos, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was so focused on its core mission that it was unable to keep records during disaster response activities.

Two years into a records management overhaul, Hudson just about has a handle on the situation. She explained the process alongside Suzanne Gill, a senior consultant at contractor Battle Resource Management Inc. DHS has revised the mandatory records training process for new employees and contractors, which previously came at the tail end of a two-day onboarding process. Now there is an online component to the training, and employees get periodic refreshers on how to handle records.

DHS also developed a strategy to combine a group of archiving, organizing and data retrieval functions into a single suite of services.

Records, legal document discovery and the processing of Freedom of Information Act requests have historically been handled by different offices at DHS. But with support from Keith Trippie, executive director of DHS' Enterprise System Development Office, an executive council was created to bring together those stakeholders.

The process has not been finalized yet, in part because of leadership turnover at DHS. The department is getting a new CIO, a new chief privacy officer and a new general counsel, as well as a new secretary. Once the executive council is reconstituted, Hudson said she hopes the group will approve the new records management regime.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


  • Workforce
    White House rainbow light shutterstock ID : 1130423963 By zhephotography

    White House rolls out DEIA strategy

    On Tuesday, the Biden administration issued agencies a roadmap to guide their efforts to develop strategic plans for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA), as required under a as required under a June executive order.

  • Defense
    software (whiteMocca/

    Why DOD is so bad at buying software

    The Defense Department wants to acquire emerging technology faster and more efficiently. But will its latest attempts to streamline its processes be enough?

Stay Connected