NARA looks to extend e-records deadline by 18 months

Agencies will likely have until June 2024 digitize their paper records after the pandemic and other challenges slowed the transition to e-records.

Agencies will likely get an 18-month extension to an end-of-year deadline for fully transitioning to electronic recordkeeping.

The Dec. 31, 2022, target for when the National Archives and Records Administration would stop accepting paper records from agencies was set in a 2019 joint memo between NARA and White House Office of Management and Budget.

But the pandemic and a lack of resources slowed agency progress toward the e-records transition. This year, more than one-third of agencies told NARA they expect to seek an exception or extension to the Dec. 31 deadline, while nearly a quarter hadn’t yet determined whether they would need more time.

The proposed extension would give agencies through June 2024 to continue sending paper records to NARA’s Federal Records Centers.

Laurence Brewer, the U.S. chief records officer at NARA, said the extension isn’t yet final, but it is in the “clearance” process at OMB.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to issue a revised memo that extends the targets and keeps the goals in place so that we can continue doing the good work that we’ve been doing for the last several years,” Brewer said during an Oct. 18 meeting of the Bi-monthly Records and Information Discussion Group.

The 2019 memo emphasized how agencies spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” and thousands of hours annually managing analog records. Meanwhile, paper-based processes also increase burden on citizens, the memo states, by requiring them to conduct business by mail or in-person.

In addition to requiring that agencies manage all permanent records in electronic format by the end of 2022, the memo also directed agencies to close their own records centers and transfer paper records to either a Federal Records Center or a commercial facility.

NARA’s 2021 Federal Agency Records Management Report, which summarizes annual reports from agencies, found COVID-19 forced agencies to adopt more digital processes, but delayed digitization projects crucial to meeting the goals of the 2022 deadline.

Brewer said agencies can start to factor the proposed June 2024 deadline into their plans and whether they will still need to seek exceptions to the e-records goals.

“With all requests for the time period beyond the 18 months, we’ll be looking for detailed plans with milestones on the work that you will be doing to meet the goals for the transition to fully electronic government,” Brewer said.

FRCs short on qualified drivers

NARA’s 18 Federal Records Centers were closed or had limited operations for months during the pandemic, also slowing progress toward the digital recordkeeping goals.

Chris Pinkney, division director of the Federal Records Centers Program Operations in Washington, D.C., said all Federal Records Centers are now open. He said the program has “eliminated many of our COVID-era backlogs, but very substantive challenges remain.”

The program is now grappling with a shortage of qualified drivers for its courier and truck services that help transport records to and from the centers. Pinkney said the program currently has more trucks than qualified drivers due to a “white hot” market for individuals with commercial driver’s licenses.

“I have often joked that when we’re recruiting, we are essentially competing with every trucking company and school district in North America when it comes to CDL drivers,” he said. “So the work is ongoing and we hope to end FY-23 with a matched fleet of vehicles and drivers. Getting there will definitely be a multi-month process.”

Meanwhile, NARA is also digging out of a deep, pandemic-induced backlog at the National Personnel Records Center. The backlog has led to extended wait times for veterans seeking access to medical and service records critical to their healthcare and other benefits.

The Senate is considering legislation to authorize additional funding for NARA to develop a comprehensive plan, with target time frames, for eliminating the backlog.

The backlog reached a height of 600,000 cases during the pandemic. It now sits at about 436,000 requests, according to Pinkney, who said staff at the records center continue to work “nights and weekends” to address the requests.

“We’re continuing to hire additional federal staff and contractors,” Pinkney said. “And they’re exploring a variety of other options. . . And we will continue to look for additional resources to make further progress on that backlog. But it is definitely one of our very highest priorities right now.”


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