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Federal Records Managers Caught In Squeeze

Facing 2016 deadline to go all electronic, agency record keepers struggle to plan amidst budget constraints.

6 Cool Apps From Uncle Sam
6 Cool Apps From Uncle Sam
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Despite progress preparing to meet two major government deadlines, federal records managers are feeling a little like Rodney Dangerfield -- trying to win respect for plans to manage their agencies' records in the electronic era.

The deadlines stem from an August 2012 directive issued by former Office of Management and Budget director Jeffrey Zients and US Archivist David Ferriero, requiring agencies to manage both permanent and temporary email records in an electronic format by the end of 2016. And by December 31, 2019, agencies must manage all permanent records in an electronic format for eventual transfer to the National Records and Archives Administration, which collects and preserves US government records.

While the deadlines seem far off, federal records managers are feeling the pressure to meet key milestones in the face of internal budget constraints. At the same time, agencies continue to grapple with an explosion of digitally created records and the need for support from overworked IT departments, even as agencies must meet administration mandates to preserve agency records electronically.

[Agencies moving email to the cloud risk a records management train wreck unless they plan well. Read Agencies Going 'Cloud First' Face A Records Riddle.]

"The vision is that the federal government will create and manage its information electronically," said Ren Cahoon, executive advisor at Reynolds Cahoon LLC and former NARA CIO, speaking at a technology forum in Washington May 14. "To the fullest extent possible, agencies eliminate paper and use electronic record-keeping. That's the push of the directive."

NARA records warehouse, circa 1959. (Source: NARA)
NARA records warehouse, circa 1959.
(Source: NARA)

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Deborah Armentrout, records officer in the Office of Information Services, has already developed plans for handling vital business information, digitalization and taxonomy, and to establish a records management application within the document management system. Plans are also in place to certify all electronic systems, prepare for litigation and train employees on new policies and procedures.

Completing the plan, however, represents only a partial victory for Armentrout. "We have embedded this plan and this program. It can't be dismissed at this point," she said. But budgeting for it is a whole other story. "I've been asked probably on weekly basis, why are we spending money on this? "I've learned how to tie records management into the mission," she continued. "So I say it's not about compliance. Let's talk about the fact that the staff needs mission-related records, quick access to the correct records anytime, anywhere in order to complete mission-related tasks. I constantly have to push that."

Armentrout stressed that the burden of meeting the e-records directive doesn't have to fall totally on the records management staff. "We've dispersed [these tasks] across our Office of Information Services. There are some staff [members] who do not have a records background who are perfectly capable of getting some of this work done. That's the way I've accomplished this with minimal records-management staff."

James Willson-Quayle, director of directives and records management at the Navy Department, also speaking at the forum, agreed that records managers must wear many hats when working toward the milestones -- especially, he added, when you sit around the table with the IT professionals, security people, and the legal people there.

"You have to be knowledgeable about IT solutions," he noted. "If a records management professional knows about the tools themselves, that knowledge will drive policy. Policy doesn't come first; it's the application of the tools that drives the policy."

Another panelist, Susan Sallaway, records officer in the Office of Technology and Information Management at the Federal Housing Finance Agency, advised managers to use NARA's Capstone system to structure email records. "Capstone and the ability to manage email by [an individual's] role is a sea change for us," she said.

NARA's Capstone bulletin, issued last year, simplified the approach to managing email records by permitting agencies to capture and preserve as "permanent" entire email accounts -- generally those of high-level officials -- for eventual transfer to NARA, instead of requiring staff to file email records individually. The remaining email accounts in the agency can be designated as "temporary" and need to be preserved only for a set period of time. The Capstone approach makes it less troublesome for agencies to meet the requirements of the 2016 deadline.

"For decades, the federal government and the National Archives have been wrestling with the best way to manage email," said Lisa Haralampus, federal records management policy sector head in NARA's Office of the Chief Records Officer. "You know you need to manage it differently. But we've been telling people that users need to print and file their email and it doesn't work."

"[Capstone means] no more print and file," she said, "and that eases the burden on everyone."

NIST's cyber-security framework gives critical-infrastructure operators a new tool to assess readiness. But will operators put this voluntary framework to work? Read the Protecting Critical Infrastructure issue of InformationWeek Government today.

Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area who has been covering issues and trends in government technology for more than 15 years. View Full Bio

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