Social confusion: Looming records mandates and social media

NARA guidelines offer a starting point, but agencies must make some important determinations themselves.

Social Media

As federal agencies scramble to meet two looming deadlines for records management mandates, they will need to confront the growing challenge of the breadth and scope of electronic interactions generated by their organizations. The definition of an electronic record, for purposes of the mandates, will continue to be a work in progress as employees and citizens alike use technology to interact with government in increasingly diverse ways. For agency IT executives, it is essential to take a broad look at what needs to be included, and to incorporate social media and other non-traditional forms of records as needed.

The National Archives and Records Administration guidelines establish a system to manage all permanent electronic records electronically for eventual transfer and accessioning by NARA, with a mandatory deadline of Dec. 31, 2019. NARA's guidelines are the result of the administration's recognition that government records are the foundation of open government, and that their availability supports the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration. Well-managed records can be used to assess the impact of programs, to improve business processes and to share knowledge across the government.

And while social media isn't explicitly called out in the mandates, it is clear that non-traditional forms of communication -- including instant messaging and website-based interactions as well as social media -- are increasingly used by agencies as well as constituents.  A recent JD Power report states that 30 percent of citizens have used social media to ask the government a direct question. That figure will only increase over time, so agency executives would be prudent to begin to consider how to manage them.

As these types of communications -- as well as newer digital channels that have yet to be invented -- will inevitably be considered agency records, the same preservation and management requirements that apply to traditional records should be expected to cover these as well. NARA itself recently issued a solicitation seeking a social media archiving tool to help it store such public-facing information as that generated by Snapchat and Twitter. 

Managing social media records is already becoming something of a pain point for enterprises, and the lack of consistent, comprehensive policies around all collaborative content is an issue agencies must quickly address.  A recent Association for Information and Image Management study found that 37 percent of respondents agreed that there are important social interactions that are not being saved or archived, while less than 15 percent of organizations included social postings in their information governance policies.

Social media's role in government

The federal government relies upon social media to provide not only a convenient platform for constituents' communications, but also a tool to measure and monitor what citizens are saying about specific programs and agency initiatives. This feedback can then be used to improve agency services and communications. While most of us consider social media to be casual in our personal lives, government's social media interactions can be considered a form of official record -- and as such, they need to be archived and managed.

Sharing on social media is easy, but archiving and storing all those interactions presents quite a challenge. Too often, the archiving processes for communications like social media are handled through a tedious process of saving and then printing screen captures, and other time- and labor-intensive methods. Not only is this method onerous to employees, but it does not easily accommodate the assessment and subsequent preservation of these records. Nor are they user-friendly and easily adaptable to new types of communications and applications. As a result, agencies struggle to put in place a system that makes it simple and intuitive for their workforce to take the necessary steps to meet all of the records management requirements.

Ultimately, and in the absence of clearer guidelines from NARA, it is the responsibility of each federal agency to determine which social media interactions qualify as official records. As they try to sort out the best practices for managing such content, here are a few questions to keep top of mind when determining what should be considered an official record:

  • Does the interaction directly relate to the agency's mission or policies? 
  • Does the content of the interaction live anywhere else, or does it exist only on a social media platform?
  • Does the interaction communicate official information? 
  • Is there a business/historical need for retention? 

Once agencies determine which social media records meet the definition of an official record, the next step is establishing a process for incorporating them into their records management systems.

Records management:  meeting the mandates

When it comes to agencies meeting the federal records management mandates, it really boils down to establishing good information governance. Whether in the form of electronic records, emails or social media posts, agencies need to put strong information governance policies in place that will help them to meet not only these looming mandates, but will also scale to accommodate future efforts to shore up our nation's records management systems and adapt to new technologies. 

Here are some steps agencies can employ now to establish a sound records management system that will grow with them into the future:

  • Audit: As a first step, agencies must understand the range of information that needs to be managed and where it is currently being stored.
  • Prioritize: Agencies then need to prioritize this information and the associated processes to determine the levels of risk – compliance risk, financial risk and reputational risk.
  • Define: Next, agencies must define retention policies – what needs to be kept, for what purpose, which employees need access and for how long. The information should be stored where it can be most effectively used to meet federal regulations.
  • Create: Agencies must create an information management system and employ user-friendly tools to support it so federal employees will actually use them to meet federal records management mandates.
  • Automate:  There are tools and technologies that can assist agencies in automating records management tasks.  This will not only ease the individual burden of records management responsibilities on already-stretched federal employees, but the consistent management enabled through automation will also make government records and information easier to access. 

Government records are the foundation of open government, and the availability of official records supports the principles of transparency, participation and collaboration. Well-managed records can be used to assess the impact of programs, to improve business processes, and to share knowledge across the government.

Emails, social media and other electronic records play an ever-growing role in government decision-making. Recognizing that the digital transformation is affecting government agencies as much as the private sector, agencies should seize the opportunity to implement the right tools to align the digital world with federal mandates and agency objectives. 

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