Paper records phase-out looks to ‘accelerate digital transformation’

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Agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours preparing paper records each year, but new guidance from the Office of Management and Budget and the National Archives and Records Administration has set deadlines for agencies to digitize their historic, permanent records before the end of 2022.

As part of the push away from paper, the memo prohibits agencies from running their own on-premises record centers past December 2022. NARA will also not accept paper records past that date.

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Laurence Brewer, NARA’s chief records officer, said a governmentwide push toward electronic records would not only reduce storage costs, but would also make it easier for members of the public to access archived information.

“I recently got the question, talking to some agencies, ‘Would we ever go back to managing paper?’ And the answer is, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle,” Brewer said in an interview with Federal News Network. “In many cases, it can be a burden to our customers, the public, to have them write us letters, or visit us in person these days. With websites and email, there are better, more efficient ways to communicate with the government.”

Agencies’ physical storage of records not only requires additional real estate, but also more time from employees that could be spent on more valuable tasks. Michael Lewis, vice-president and general manager of Iron Mountain’s public sector, said the shift from physical to digital records outlined in the memo would help drive down the overall cost.

“It is going to force change and to have agencies think differently about how they can make this transformation. It will accelerate digital transformation,” Lewis said in an interview.

The memo also requires agencies to manage all their electronic records, such as emails, in an electronic format before the end of this year, but agencies have already met this goal under a  2012 Obama administration memo that tasked agencies with moving their email records to an electronic format by the end of 2016.

That previous memo also tasked agencies with appointing senior agency officials for records management (SAORMs) help oversee the upcoming transition to electronic records.

Trump administration, IG flag e-records challenges

But despite agencies meeting those Obama-era requirements, the outlook for agencies meeting future milestones appears mixed.

The Trump administration’s June 2018 government reorganization plan, for example, said efforts to ween agencies off paper processes have been “inconsistent and ineffective across agencies.” But 98 percent of agency senior records management officials last year said they were confident in their ability to meet this year’s deadline to digitize their permanent records.

However, NARA’s inspector general office found that the agency, despite recent progress, still doesn’t have a reliable way to flag gaps in electronic copies of historical records that agencies were scheduled to send to NARA.

“As a result, NARA has no assurance records of historical value are not lost or destroyed. If these records are lost, NARA cannot fulfill its core mission to ‘Make Access Happen,'” the report from June said.

Brewer said NARA has stepped up its outreach with SAORMs and has run inspections at agency program offices to identify risks and areas for improvement. And by December, the agency will release new metadata standards focused on improving indexing and searchability of records.

But long-standing challenges around legacy IT may impede some agencies’ progress. With most agencies spending around 80-85% of their IT budgets on operations and maintenance, Lewis said agencies have struggled to invest in infrastructure upgrades, like cloud migration.

But recent Trump administration policy documents, including the recently released Cloud Smart Strategy and the Federal Data Strategy’s one-year action plan, have provided agencies with a roadmap of how to proceed going forward. Lewis said the data strategy’s requirement for agencies to provide inventories of their data should help them sort through some of the clutter of their temporary records, which despite their name, can remain in agency archives for about 75 years.

“Some of the data that is stored is, quite honestly, unnecessary to store,” Lewis said.

Under the OMB-NARA memo, agencies also have until December 2022 to convert their temporary records to an electronic format.

The road ahead: cloud storage, cybersecurity and reskilling

Even though NARA currently holds about at least 712 terabytes of electronic archival records, Brewer said that with agencies moving to the cloud, electronic record storage costs a fraction of paper records storage.

But cybersecurity remains a top concern for most agencies, based on conversations that Brewer has had with records management officials. But “forward-thinking” electronic records policies, he said, should ensure agencies keep records safe until they’re flagged for disposal or transfer to NARA.

“By focusing our attention and resources on electronic records, agencies can develop strategic approaches to managing our government’s critical information assets,” Brewer said.

The memo also calls on the Office of Personnel Management to review the job series for records management professionals and archivists and update them to reflect the skills they’ll need to manage digital records.

The records management workforce of the future, Lewis said, would require an “accelerated investment” in cybersecurity, as well as a faster pace on reskilling efforts happening elsewhere in government.

“The government, as well as industry, is going to have to attract and retain and develop experts in the digital world so that this data becomes much more accessible, much more searchable than it is today,” Lewis said.

Brewer said the workforce of the future should have a “greater awareness of technology in general,” as well as project management skills and an ability to coordinate with IT staff on best practices and common file types.

“We expect that we will be working with OPM to identify these skill sets and the required competencies,” Brewer said. “But we feel like this is something that needs to come along with what we’re doing, from a policy and programmatic perspective, to make sure that that the staff who are supporting this work are really set up to be successful in this new environment.”

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