NARA seeks workforce reskilling, AI tools in weaning agencies off paper records

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The National Archives and Records Administration will wean agencies off paper records over the next few years, but has a plan in place to retrain the records management workforce and make it easier for agencies to buy the tools they’ll need to make the transition to fully electronic records.

By the end of December 2022, NARA will no longer accept hard-copy versions of historic, permanent records. Laurence Brewer, the agency’s chief records officer, said the agency had set its sights on becoming a paperless office years ago, but with agencies dealing with a “crushing” volume of legacy paper records, he said NARA eventually had to “draw a line in the sand.”

“You can’t really, with the limited resources that we all have, focus on electronic records and do it well, while also at the same time trying to manage legacy paper systems and processes,” Brewer said Tuesday at the 930Gov records management conference in Washington.

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NARA is working on new guidance for agencies on how to digitize their permanent records after it released similar guidance in April on digitizing temporary records. But significant challenges still lay ahead for retraining records management personnel to have the skills they’ll need to manage electronic records.

“We have a lot of people who are comfortable working with analog paper records, and we need to make sure we bring them along so that they can be more comfortable and informed about working with electronic records,” Brewer said.

In order to streamline this reskilling, NARA is moving to an “online-only” model for training records management personnel who are not senior agency officials for records management (SAORMs).

“We’re trying to mitigate some of the loss of knowledge that has been communicated in the past by really beefing up our website and our web catalog, and really focusing on helping agencies train their own staff … By not charging anymore, and making everything available for free. We’re opening up the availability of the content to everyone. But we’re also planning to work with agencies to help them structure and figure out the best way to teach that content to staff within their agencies,” Brewer said.

Next year,  NARA will work with the Office of Personnel Management to develop a new job series for records management professionals. Under the current system, some agency components may only have one or two part-time employees who handle records management.

Brewer said his aim for those talks with OPM is to “elevate the profile” of records management personnel and to advocate for the resources they’ll need to carry out their duties.

Through its Federal Electronic Records Modernization Initiative (FERMI), NARA has also worked with the General Services Administration and the vendor community to make it easier for agencies to buy the IT modernization tools they’ll need for electronic records management.

“Our goal … is trying to get to a place where records management is transparent to the user,” Brewer said. “And these technologies — AI and machine learning, predictive coding — all of these things are working for us. They’re not a challenge for us. They’re not an obstacle, they’re actually enabling effective records management so that our staff, our employees, the people who work in our agencies can focus on the mission work.”

NARA will prohibit agencies from running their own on-premises record centers past December 2022, creating an opportunity for vendors to store paper records offsite for agencies.

“We recognize there’s a lot of paper out there, but we also recognize that there’s a lot of expertise in the private sector for managing and storing records that are inactive,” Brewer said. “If you are the Centers for Disease Control, your focus should be on research and finding cures, not storing records.”

However, in some cases, agencies can still appeal to keep their own legacy paper records in-house. Brewer said NARA will review those business cases from agencies on a case-by-case basis.

“We realize that there are going to be some exceptions in certain agencies where they absolutely have to have it. The memo does provide that language without exception,” Brewer said.

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