White House tells federal agencies to improve records management by considering new electronic alternatives.

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor

November 29, 2011

3 Min Read

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In yet another effort to manage costs and make government information more available, President Obama has ordered federal agencies to improve their records management activities in part by moving from paper-based records to a cloud-based system.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which oversees recordkeeping for the federal government, has collected about 475 million pages of records a year for each of the last 10 years, according to a White House blog post by staffer Megan Slack. However, "federal agencies aren't keeping up with this heavier load," she said, which has prompted the president to ask agencies to consider electronic alternatives for recordkeeping.

"Making these records available and accessible to the public is an important step toward giving people clear and accurate information about the decisions and actions of the Federal Government," according to Slack. "That, however, is largely dependent on taking advantage of these technology advances and making information available electronically, instead of relying on paper-based archives."

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A presidential memo outlines steps agencies must take in the next several months to reforming current federal recordkeeping processes by moving to a digital-based system wherever possible.

Within 90 days, agencies must submit a report to both the Archivist of the United States and the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on how they will improve the management of existing and ongoing records--including emails and social-media communications. Their plans should include the use of cloud-based services or storage systems for digital recordkeeping, according to the memo.

Agencies also should include any obstacles they currently face or think they'll face as they move to the digital realm, as well as identify policies and programs that could bolster their efforts to improve how they maintain records.

The memo also mandates that agency senior managers prioritize the successful implementation of records-management and ensure they allocate sufficient resources to meet those requirements.

Within 120 days of submitting those reports, the director of the OMB, the national archivist, and an associate attorney general will issue a Records Management Directive specifying the steps agencies should take to reform and improve policies and practices.

That directive will focus on the creation of a more cost-effective and efficient federal records-management framework as well as the promotion of records-management policies and practices that are in line with specific agency missions, according to the memo.

Agencies also will be directed how to maintain accountability for recordkeeping, improve public access to records, support compliance with legal requirements, and how they should transition from paper-based to electronics records management wherever feasible.

The feds' historic attempts at digital recordkeeping have not always gone smoothly.

NARA began working with contractor Lockheed Martin on a digital archive of records back in 2001, a project that's had its complications and gone way over budget.

Still, the three-faceted system is up and running successfully, with one system for federal records, another system for the executive office of the president that deployed in 2008, and a third system for congressional records that was deployed at the end of 2009. The archive also has an online public access system for records that are freely available.

To help NARA manage the archive, the agency in October awarded IBM a $240 million, 10-year contract to operate and maintain it.

Our annual Federal Government IT Priorities Survey shows how agencies are managing the many mandates competing for their limited resources. Also in the new issue of InformationWeek Government: NASA veterans launch cloud startups, and U.S. Marshals Service completes tech revamp. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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