Records management: Are agencies getting full return on information?

A recent survey found that only 33 percent of federal employees are very confident in current records programs.

Records and information management in the federal government has reached a tipping point. The constant influx of information, the creation of new record types and mounting pressure from inside the government to become more digital, accessible, transparent and cost-effective are accelerating the need for agencies to modernize their records programs to keep up with continually evolving information demands.

The government has made significant progress on this front through initiatives such as the presidential directive on managing government records and the Office of Management and Budget's Reduce the Footprint policy. Such efforts are forcing a reduced use of space, which can also mean a reduction in physical records. This is not the time for complacency, however, because much work remains to ensure that the government has total control over its information.

Concerns about records management practices still permeate federal agencies, and they are preventing the government from realizing its maximum potential "return on information" -- or the true value of the information.

A new survey shows that much still needs to be done to close the confidence gap surrounding information governance, security and access at the agency level. When 150 federal employees engaged in their agencies' records management practices were polled, just 15 percent strongly agreed that current records management policies are meeting their agencies' needs. Additionally, only 33 percent said they were fully confident their records were not at risk.

The survey identified a number of possible improvement areas in agency operations that would address the lack of confidence among government records professionals. The top two self-reported challenges were end users' lack of awareness of policies and procedures (41 percent) and the tremendous growth rate of government records (39 percent).

It is not surprising that confusion and lack of awareness persist; the survey also found that only 53 percent of respondents had received formal records training and 19 percent had not received any training at all, even informally.

The lack of formal training has far-reaching consequences. It is causing agencies to miss out on opportunities to lower costs, limit associated exposure to risk and maximize the value of information. Informal training and a reliance on personal judgment cannot replace formal training and a comprehensive information governance program.

The silver lining

The good news is that even small adjustments, such as formalizing records and information training for all employees, can have widespread, beneficial effects on compliance. In fact, 64 percent of those who received formal training described it as very effective, while only 12 percent of those with informal training described it the same way.

Eighty-one percent of respondents who received informal training described it as only somewhat effective, strongly suggesting there is room for improvement in every federal agency to arm employees, from the management level down to the end user, with more structured guidance on records policies and protocols.

Agencies can make progress toward establishing a more confident, defensible records and information management plan by taking it a step at a time -- first by ensuring formal training for all, then exploring the automation of retention rules or archiving email.

Every government undertaking, ranging from the truly massive to the most modest tweaks, begins with taking that first step. Progressing toward a better digital, open future state is possible, and even small steps can make a big difference in confidence levels across the government.

Steps for success

To address the multitude of information management challenges that are still beleaguering agencies in spite of high-level directives, comprehensive information economics initiatives that account for the specific needs and capabilities of agencies must be developed. Information economics allows agencies to manage and use the information created and received by those agencies, while helping to maintain a focus on the bottom line. Information economics allows agencies to fully address the unification of information security, governance and access to deliver that value.

To institute a formal information economics program, agencies should consider the following steps:

  • Take stock of assets and focus on understanding controlled information. What do you have, what needs organizing and where can volume be reduced to better manage risk?
  • Extract and maximize value. Evaluate information access procedures and workflow and then pinpoint opportunities for improvement and increased efficiency. Increase accessibility by digitizing high-value documents.
  • Reap greater returns. Manage information more effectively across its entire life cycle to realize a return on information.
  • Practice the art of self-examination. Self-assessment should lead to better communication within an agency and improve internal collaboration.
  • Analyze the information. Once information is under control, apply big-data analytics to help inform future decisions.

Before agencies can capitalize on the value in their data, they must first establish proper control. The rate of information produced on a daily basis and the cost of handling and storing that information have never been higher. By knowing exactly what information is under their control and exactly where it resides, agencies can cull necessary records, and by properly disposing of outdated records as soon as they become eligible for elimination, they can cut wasteful spending.

Through proper training and adherence to the steps listed above, agencies will enable their employees to determine exactly what information they have, how to maximize its value and how best to eliminate associated risk and costs. Ultimately, they will drive return on information through the implementation of information economics. 

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