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Surveys continue to show weaknesses in federal records management

Does it surprise you that many federal agency employees still manage their documents by printing them out and placing them in filing cabinets?

Several years ago, it was that antiquated practice that made Rodger Matthews Sr., a Department of Agriculture official, determined to push for change in the Department's Risk Management Agency (RMA), which deals with crop insurance and related programs.

"We had filing cabinets everywhere, and we were running out of space," recalls Matthews, associate deputy administrator for product management. "We got requests for more filing cabinets, and we just decided that was enough."

"We didn't even have a records officer then," Matthews says. "We started working with our chief information officer at the time on our own records management system and hired a records officer to come in. We had to crawl, then walk, then run."

The RMA is in a much better position now in terms of its records management and retention. In fact, the agency won an award from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2011 for its deployment of a SharePoint electronic recordkeeping solution for more than 500 users in 27 locations around the country.


But many federal agencies are still struggling with enterprise records management. For the last three 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 electronic 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.

Following the 2009 survey, KMWorld interviewed NARA officials (kmworld.com/Articles/Editorial/Feature/Many-federal-agencies-struggle-with-records-managementSome-fall-short-on-basic-infrastructureand-training-survey-finds.-69505.aspx) about the results, which found that one in six federal agencies had not established the basic infrastructure of a records management program. Additionally, 40 percent of agencies had not conducted a recent evaluation of their records management program.

Flash forward to 2012, and NARA has completed its third such assessment. The report finds 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."

No dramatic changes

This year's survey (see downloadable charts) may carry more weight because it is reinforced by a November 2011 presidential memorandum on managing government records that requires each agency to designate a senior official to supervise an evaluation of the agency's records management program. The memorandum also requires agencies to report to NARA on improvements in the management of e-mail and social media, and when agencies deploy cloud-based services or storage solutions. (NARA is currently reviewing those plans in order to formulate a new records management directive.)

Donald Rosen, director of policy analysis and enforcement in NARA's Office of the Chief Records Officer, notes that the rankings agencies are given based on their self-assessment responses haven't changed dramatically. Although the number of agencies rated as at low risk of improper disposition of records has improved from 5 percent to 10 percent, "the same areas of weakness remain," he says.

NARA notes that some agencies are using the results of the self-assessment to improve their records management programs. Several agencies have established sophisticated metrics for their records management programs, a practice NARA has encouraged. "We want them to do more evaluation, and more inventory of their resources," Rosen says. Agencies can do internal audits to monitor how much training is taking place. "They can use the findings of this survey as a starting point," he adds. "It is designed to help them isolate the issues. And there are always new issues cropping up, such as cloud computing and social media."

Training is key

One of the cornerstones of records management is regular training. Most enterprise records management systems require employees to enter metadata about documents to make them more readily retrievable. Rosen says that staff members don't have to become IT gurus, but they do have to understand how policies and procedures apply to them as they move into the realm of electronic documents. The surveys have shown that most agencies have records management training programs in place. Seventy-four percent of the respondents said they have developed agency-specific training for all personnel, and 62 percent said they provided annual training sessions.

Training for senior officials, however, continues to be a major weakness. Twenty-three percent of respondents said they do not provide records management training for senior officials. "It is very important that the senior officials get the training," Rosen says, "not just for their records, but so they understand the importance of this and make it a priority in their agencies."

Another challenge for records management executives is participating in the design, development and implementation of new electronic systems. Only 16 percent of federal agency records officers answered that they always participate in that process, while 43 percent said they are rarely or never involved. "Records managers are getting better at working with IT staff," Rosen says. "Sometimes they are located physically within the CIO's office."

Living within the budget

One CIO who has worked hard on records management systems is Doug Bailey of the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. AMS provides grading services, market news reporting, school lunch purchase programs and a national organic program.

When Bailey arrived at AMS several years ago, no electronic records system was in place. "It was print it out and put it in a file," he says. "We have to meet these federal requirements about disposition of electronic records." Yet, buying a large enterprise system was not really an option. "We run a lean operation based largely on user fees. We try to be frugal," he explains.

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