‘Agencies need a strategy’ to improve records management

Records management is back in the spotlight as the Obama administration begins transferring 12 terabytes of data to the National Archives and Records Administration. It’s rarely been a high priority for most agencies, and their practices have had difficulty keeping up with federal requirements.

“I think it’s always been a function that’s really been overlooked,” Jim Williams, former federal IT and acquisition executive and current consultant with Shambach and Williams, said on Information Management Month. “Records management is very important. And it becomes more important as OMB has put out memos to first freeze the federal footprint and then reduce the federal footprint.”

He said that agencies need to commit to ensuring their records are well-managed, preserved, accessible and secure. Agencies could accomplish all of this, he said, by taking advantage of private sector solutions like cloud services.

“What they really need is a strategy for managing their records better and paying attention to the OMB mandates to be able to manage all of their email in electronic format by the end of this year and then be able to manage all of their records in an electronic format by 2019,” Williams told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “Those are important deadlines. What it really means is agencies need a strategy. They need to step up.”

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And indeed, Rob Efrus of Efrus Federal Advisors said that agencies are being proactive on electronic communications, especially the migration of applications to the cloud.

“There, more traction is being achieved because it falls more squarely under the auspices of the CIO compared to the traditional records, which are receiving a much lower priority,” he told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

The biggest problem is that federal agencies still have a significant paper trail.

In late 2011, the Obama administration issued a memorandum on improving records management procedures and increasing transparency but did not provide agencies with more funding to do so.

“National Archives estimates that that paper trail is going to be with us for the next 40 years or so,”
Efrus said. “So what agencies have had to do in many cases is store those records in their own facilities.”

Efrus said that real-estate services firm CBRE estimated that 35 percent of federal commercial office space is being used to store paper records.

“The underlying problem with all this is that when agencies store records in their own facilities, not only is that a costly way to go, but those records are being stored in space that is not consistent with the [regulations] promulgated by the National Archives,” he said.

Those regulations include certain specifications that the building must meet, including flame retardancy and humidity. Many government records have been lost in the past due to fire or mold. And most government buildings don’t meet those records preservation guidelines.

“I remember being in a horrible building, the 7th and D building, where I was told to go take care of these old files, and clearly it looked like it had rained in there a month ago,” Williams said. “There were moldy files, decaying files. And these were government records that we needed to keep, and frankly I ended up having to throw them out because they were crumbling in my hands or covered with mold. So not only having them expertly cataloged, but having them preserved too is important.”

Williams said that agencies can meet their goals for records, lower their footprints, and save money by moving past existing practices and embracing commercial solutions.

“Because records management is a relatively low priority in the scheme of things, agencies are reluctant to change how they’re doing business with regards to paper records,” Efrus said. “Some agencies have taken a more aggressive enterprise approach, recognizing that millions of dollars can be saved on an annual basis by taking a more best-practices approach to getting those records out of commercial office space and doing so in a way that increases transparency and accountability.”