Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

INDUSTRY INSIGHT

3 ideas for records management challenges during COVID

I think we can all agree that this year did not start according to plan.  

This is especially true for government record and information managers who will now face new challenges in preserving records for posterity and public access -- a key component in maintaining the strength of democracy. 

In a sign of the times, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has released guidance for federal agencies on how to manage records while a significantly increased number of people are working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

NARA has been a global leader in records management and should be applauded for its agility and responsiveness to these times. One of its suggestions hints at a serious challenge for public-sector records managers and their agencies. As a former public sector records manager, this line caught and held my attention: “Some teleworking employees may find that they use personal email accounts or other electronic messaging applications, like text messages or messaging apps within social media or video conferencing tools, to communicate for work.” 

While I definitely appreciate these are extraordinary circumstances, having people use their personal email or other messaging apps for work is a significant records management risk.  

NARA goes on to advise that anything created using these non-official systems must be forwarded or copied to an official system within 20 days. Policing this is almost impossible, and we’re also asking users to perform additional steps in already-trying circumstances.  

Unfortunately, I think this uphill battle is just starting.  

How we got here 

Truthfully, despite the best efforts of NARA, records management has been a low priority for public-sector agencies for too long. According to a survey of federal record managers AvePoint commissioned and NARA’s own surveys, agencies are still too dependent on paper records, even as they are transitioning to electronic records.  Our survey in particular showed only 51% of agencies have completely migrated records to a cloud application. 

This is not unique to the U.S. federal government. A friend of mine is a public-sector records manager in Australia who was unable to work from home as all the agency’s information was in physical format and couldn’t be allowed to leave the offices.  

An entire department could not work from home because staff would have lost access to all their information. There would be no way to digitize the volume of content in the timeframe available, so everyone had to keep coming in each day. That’s a real challenge!  

How to solve these challenges 

Content is being created all over the place in repositories that may not have existed before and had been rolled out much sooner than expected.  

Here are three pieces of advice for agencies tackling records management challenges during COVID-19:  

  1. Invest in a cloud-based solution that will allow records managers to wrap their arms around this content. This move will ensure they can roll out a very basic records management program, while also buying some time to implement a more comprehensive program down the line. It may not be the ideal records management strategy, but having visibility of the content is paramount. Records managers should work with the IT department so they can understand what they might need to have in place to get their records managed.   
  1. For a basic records management program, agencies must focus on what’s important. Retention, disposal or disposition rules don’t matter right now. The most important thing is to be able to get a classification or file plan terms applied to the content, which will give records managers that much needed visibility, along with the space to go back and fix things when there is more time. The goal is not perfection, but “control + breathing space.” Down the track, agencies can push out retention and disposition rules for all this content, but right now, they should just ensure they can manage it. 
  1. Do it all without bothering the end user. This is the most important recommendation. Agency employees have enough going on right now without records managers asking them to perform additional tasks. Wherever it’s possible (and this should be just about everywhere) records management processes should be implemented without end-user intervention.  

Implementing something as simple as default file plan or classification terms based on location is the easiest and most efficient way to get a compliant records program up and running. Down the road,  records managers can investigate how more advanced auto classification like text analysis or machine learning can also play a part.  

The most important thing to understand is that it’s not too late to get a records management program in shape. An ounce of preventive work now will save a pound of pain later. Be sure to place records management in the bucket of new tasks marked as a priority during this time. 

About the Author

Alyssa Blackburn is an information strategy manager at AvePoint.

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