In a major step towards freeing itself from paper records keeping, the Defense Department unveiled its first ever records management strategy on Monday. The plan names goals the department wants to achieve over the next five years in an effort to create user-friendly discoverable digital archives.
The strategy lists four goals. They include creating a comprehensive library of records to aid the department in decision-making, automating records creation, retrieving and managing records, and planning a lifecycle for them.
Defense officials said an overarching goal is to turn DoD’s vast storehouses of records into “actionable information.”
“The strategy seeks to employ the latest technologies, such as artificial intelligence and cloud-based services, to reduce the administrative burden associated with records management, while creating an environment where DoD records are automatically identified and captured, expertly curated, and systemically governed,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks wrote in a foreword to the 34-page document.
Jason R. Baron, former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and University of Maryland professor in the College of Information Studies, said he generally gives the strategy high marks for addressing weaknesses in DoD records keeping, but said the plan will need to go father as it progresses.
“It does a terrific job. It should actually be a template for dozens of other agencies throughout the government to look to and ask questions about their own enterprise framework for records management. I would say that there are issues that still need to be addressed by DoD,” said Baron in an interview with Federal News Network.
In the strategy, officials said they intend to make their records easier to find and use when needed, using automation. The department’s records management systems also needs to have security built in to make information discoverable only to authorized users.
The plan lists four areas that need to be developed in order to achieve the goals. A top priority is upgrading and untangling the department’s many records schedules. The strategy calls for improving schedules so they provide a machine-readable roadmap for finding specific information and supporting business processes, interoperability, and analytics. The plan will create master schedules to better organize information.
Baron said the strategy addresses records schedules in an attempt to correct a weakness in how DoD’s records are organized.
“The record schedules are very granular, they have hundreds of records series with different disposition periods for how long records should be retained. There are variations and inconsistencies,” he said.
Another part of making data safer and easier to use includes creating metadata for records and record sharing. In supporting automated records and lifecycle management, metadata can allow easier record retrieval and guarantee a record’s trustworthiness. It can link a record’s context and improve security. The strategy plans to use metadata to enhance cloud migration, Al, big data analytics, and other DoD objectives. Metadata will also play a role in controlling information access within the department.
“[The strategy] has a very good set of diagrams that make it clear that there are different types of metadata and one of those types is controlling access internally,” Baron said.
A third area the plan will develop is using artificial intelligence to aid in gathering, automating and governing DoD records in ways that meet security needs of zero trust. The strategy will build AI into the transformation to electronic records in ways to make them easier to use.
“The National Archives has been an advocate of using AI tools, both to categorize and make access possible on its websites for billions of records. And then there are AI tools that are important in the management of records from any agency,” said Baron.
The final piece that DoD needs to support the strategy is a workforce with skillsets in program management, electronic records management, records curation, and administrative support. The department will need both a trained workforce and expert consultations to achieve its record management goals.
“From a records management perspective, it’s really important to get those experts who understand the lifecycle of records at the table at the beginning for the purpose of making sure that records can be communicated to the field efficiently and managed appropriately,” Baron said.
The strategy addresses a 2019 White House and NARA memo requiring all agencies to move their records to electronic formats by the end of 2022. When agencies reported trouble meeting that deadline, NARA switched it to June 2024. By the end of 2022, more than a third of agencies said they needed more time to make the transition. The main reason cited for the delay was lack of electronic management technology to make the change.