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Federal agencies show progress on records management

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Both in 2010 and in 2012, I interviewed officials at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) about their efforts to help federal agencies improve their enterprise records management capabilities. Touching base with NARA executives again in 2015, I found steady gains being made at the agency level due to the increasing focus on policy, training and coordination between NARA and agency records officers.

For several years, NARA, which is charged with getting federal agencies to do a better job of satisfying their legal obligations concerning storage and discovery of their business documents, has required agencies to complete self-assessment surveys. The findings reveal specific areas of weakness that the majority of federal records management programs have in common.

The earlier surveys showed that agencies were clearly struggling to meet requirements. For instance, the 2012 report found that “agencies still struggle to manage a voluminous amount of textual records while simultaneously facing the technological challenges of preserving records created and maintained in electronic format.” Training for senior officials was a major weakness. Twenty-three percent of respondents said they did not provide records management training for senior officials.

In the most recently published self-assessment survey results, for 2013, for the first time the percentage of agencies rated as at low risk of improper disposition of records exceeded those in the high-risk category. (Low-risk agencies have 90 percent or higher positive responses to assessments of their records management policies, practice and performance.) For 2013, 29 percent were rated at low risk, 43 percent moderate risk, and 28 percent high risk. In the previous year, the risk category breakdown was 20 percent at low risk, 44 percent moderate risk and 36 percent high risk. As recently as 2010, only 5 percent of agencies scored in the low-risk category and 46 percent in the high-risk one.

NARA officials attribute the improvement to a few things. First and foremost is a 2012 Managing Government Records Directive from the White House. “That has been a tool to engage agencies that has really helped us,” says Don Rosen, NARA’sdirector of policy analysis and enforcement. “There are very specific goals that focus on records management and training requirements. We have been seeing incremental progress on the self-assessments for the last couple of years, but this is the first time we have seen strong movement in a positive direction.”

Despite the progress, it was interesting to find that although records officers themselves were interested in discussing their work, in several cases I was told that the public relations offices of those agencies declined KMWorld’s requests for interviews.

Communities of interest

The Directive called for the engagement of communities of interest. One example is a fairly new Federal Records Officer Network (FRON), a community that meets regularly online and in person. “It is an excellent tool to move agencies forward because they are able to talk to other federal records officers,” says Lisa Haralampus, NARA’s director of federal records policy. “They share best practices and training information and talk about vital records and elements of a good records management program.”

Ron Swecker, records manager in the Division of Trading and Markets for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, says the FRON grew out of records officers’ desire to share ideas, strategy and policy ideas just as they would at a conference. As an example, he said, next month’s meeting topic is collaboration between records officers and Freedom of Information Act officers.

The group is limited to people with a .gov or .mil e-mail address to allow for a free exchange of ideas, including experience with different solution vendors, he says, adding that FRON has grown to more than 200 registered members. One example of the value they find in participating involves training. A relatively new requirement that all employees have records management training “is a heavy lift for records officers in small agencies,” he says. “FRON members post versions of training materials that these records officers can go in and grab and customize for their employees.”

Past self-assessment surveys indicated that getting senior agency officials engaged in records management efforts was a key challenge. The Directive required each agency to designate a senior agency official (SAO) at the assistant secretary level or above.

“Those SAOs form a second community,” Haralampus says. Although they don’t meet regularly, a list on the NARA website shows which agencies have champions. “They are responsible for making adjustments to policies, practices and people related to records management,” she says. “The records manager is focusing operationally; the SAO is supposed to be able to look at strategic planning and oversight and influence decision makers. We think we have seen progress because agencies now have an influencer and are sharing information and best practices.”

The SAOs are required to file an annual report. In the first year, NARA received 107 reports. Overwhelmingly, the largest challenge agencies identified in meeting the goals of the Directive involves budget and funding, Haralampus says. They are also concerned about information technology issues, staffing, training, lack of standards and conflicting priorities.

Capstone approach

To fine-tune their efforts, NARA suggests that agencies need to establish well-defined and meaningful performance goals and performance measures for their major records management program activities and develop internal controls that provide reasonable assurance that their programs comply with all federal records management laws and regulations.

Managing huge volumes of agency e-mail records has always been a challenge. NARA has tried to help agencies by introducing a “Capstone” approach to e-mail management. According to NARA, Capstone offers agencies the option of using a more simplified and automated approach to managing e-mail, as opposed to using either print-and-file systems or records management applications that require staff to file e-mail records individually.

Using Capstone, an agency can categorize and schedule e-mail based on the work and/or position of the account owner. The Capstone approach allows for the capture of records that should be preserved as permanent from the accounts of officials at or near the top of an agency. Following that approach, an agency can schedule all of the e-mail in Capstone accounts as permanent records, schedule the remaining e-mail accounts as temporary and preserve all of them for a set period of time based on the agency’s needs.

For instance, the Congressional Budget Office uses an e-mail archive system that is monitored daily and captures e-mail received. Permanent records are identified by sender and receiver, and include all of the e-mail sent or received by certain employees in senior leadership positions. Permanent e-mail is transferred to NARA and temporary e-mail is deleted by using interfaces included in their software.

Haralampus says the Capstone approach simplifies decision-making. Once you determine whose e-mails you need to preserve and which ones to eventually delete, you are in a numbers conversation. “It is something that CIOs can automate and implement,” she says. “It is an approach that lawyers like because it tells them how long e-mails are available in the organization, so you know what you can find for e-discovery. And it is an approach IT folks like because they can budget for it and they can plan for it.”

Focus on training

The Directive states that by 2016 all agencies will be submitting their e-mail electronically, Rosen adds, “meaning they can’t print and file their e-mail anymore. Capstone is one approach to help them get there.”

The Directive also puts strong emphasis on training. Agency records officers were required to hold the NARA certificate of Federal Records Management Training by the end of 2014, and an Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo of 2014-16 on e-mail management stressed training all staff for e-mail and records management. “That has really helped,” Haralampus says. “The Directive and memo have brought a level of focus on training that wasn’t there before.”

Despite the progress in training and records management infrastructure, plenty of agencies still remain in the high-risk category. The self-assessments are public reports that are sent to the OMB and Congress, so they do have an impact, according to Rosen. “People also use the report to help their agencies improve,” he says. “They share it with senior officials to make the case for resources or tools or whatever they might need.”

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer, e-mail draths@mac.com.

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