Digital data downpour

Digital data downpour

Agencies wrestle with how to store electronic records

BY RICHARD W. WALKER | GCN STAFF

The explosion of electronic data across government is rocking the once staid world of records management.

Few know this better than the government's archivist, John Carlin.

'The whole ball game of records management is changing dramatically. The change is huge,' said Carlin, director of the National Archives and Records Administration. 'We've gone from file clerks who would help people get their paper filed in an appropriate place to everyone at their desktop being their own file clerk.'

John Carlin
Government archivist John Carlin says there needs to be a sense of urgency among agencies about digital record-keeping.
For agencies, the technology and policy issues surrounding digital records are snowballing at a time when the deadline looms for implementing the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

GPEA requires that citizens be able to conduct the majority of their business with the government online by October 2003.

For records managers, GPEA will mean an avalanche of digital records in multiple forms to be managed and stored.

'We cannot keep pace with the explosion of records,' Steve Colo, deputy assistant director and chief information officer of the Secret Service, said at a NARA conference earlier this year.

Record-keeping growth

'It never stops,' said Kenneth Thibodeau, director of NARA's two-year-old Electronic Records Archives program. 'The growth continues as far as you're going into the future.'

It's no wonder that Carlin says electronic records pose the biggest challenge ever faced by records managers. Moreover, he said there should be a sense of urgency, such as the one that permeated the year 2000 effort, about tackling the problem.

Would he apply the word crisis to the current state of digital record-keeping?

'Absolutely,' he said. 'You have to remember that the government is charging ahead with electronic commerce, electronic government and GPEA, setting all sorts of targets for agencies to be more and more electronic, ignoring the fact that balanced with this ought to be: How are we going to keep the records?'

Michael Miller, director of NARA's Modern Records programs, is at the fore in the struggle to come up with methods for managing the onslaught of electronic records.

Good-bye to paper

'We have decades of precedence, legal opinions and experience in paper,' he said. 'All of a sudden we have to develop guidance [for digital records] in a short period of time. Sorting through what [approaches] we can take from hard copy and apply to electronic records and what we really need to rethink is, to me, the biggest challenge.'

Michael Miller
Michael Miller is leading the effort at NARA to develop guidance for stowing agencies' Web site records.
As part of that effort, Miller's team is developing guidance for keeping Web site records.

'We've done a number of internal drafts of guidance and pretty much agreed on a strategy,' Miller said.

In the new world of electronic records, problems transcend managerial and organizational strategies, unlike problems in other areas of information technology, such as security.

In other fields, it is often said that the real barriers to moving forward are management or cultural issues, not technological inadequacies.

Not so in electronic-records management. Records managers face genuine technical hurdles.
For example, as software and hardware become obsolete, digital records created today may not be readable a few decades from now, let alone centuries into the future.

Led by Thibodeau, NARA is researching ways to deal with the conundrum of technological obsolescence, especially over the long haul (see story, Page 11).

But most agencies' records managers aren't fretting about accessing digital records in the year 2500. They've got more immediate problems.

For instance: What's to be done about the proliferation of e-mail? Sometimes they're records, too. But NARA has'for the moment'left it up to the agencies to decide which records to keep and how best to keep them.

'Right now my e-mail system is at 85 percent capacity,' the Secret Service's Colo said. 'At any given time, it can slow down to a halt. We can't move quick enough to handle this information, and the issue might be telling people we need to wipe these records off so the system can keep on going. But that's not the solution, obviously.'

That agency records managers are struggling with e-mail was all too evident at the NARA conference.

'There are really important records management issues that we haven't begun to address with e-mail,' Marie Allen, director of the Lifecycle Management Division at NARA, told a panel. 'It's like having a superhighway without drivers' licenses and car inspections. There's no control.'

E-mail's on the move

Added Treasury Department CIO James Flyzik: 'E-mail is changing the face of government. Bear this in mind: Most e-mails in your agency must be treated as federal records. How do you deal with that?'

William Murphy, Treasury's senior counsel for technology, said the department is taking the less-technical route for now. 'In the short run we're going to print them out and save them. At the moment we have no alternative because we have no electronic records schedule in place,' he said.

'Until we get the systems in place to support the maintenance of electronic records, unfortunately, it's paper,' he added.

And what do you save?

'I would save everything,' said Charley Barth, leading-edge services manager for the Navy's CIO office.

'We are looking at that as a realistic possibility'saving not only all the e-mails we create but all the e-mails we receive as well. That's going to help with retrieving information for litigation and discovery,' he said.

Allen countered that saving nonessential records is an enormous drag on government resources. 'In some of the analyses we've done of e-mail in high-level government offices, only between 5 percent and 30 percent are worthy of being kept as records,' she said.

Allen suggested that, in the absence of formal guidance on e-mail policies, managers categorize e-mail by content, decide how long items in these categories should be kept, train users to make decisions on what should be kept, and make sure that managers are carefully overseeing the process.

Web sites pose similar problems for managers. What do you need to capture and what not?

In developing guidance on Web records, Miller's team sought input from records managers throughout government.

'The advice was all over the board as to what we should be doing,' he said. 'We're trying to work through it.'

In the meantime, in the absence of clear policies, records managers should use risk assessment as the primary factor in making decision about Web records.

'Think through your Web site'think about what happens if you don't have a record of what was up there at any given point in time,' Miller said.

Overall, records managers agree that they can't go it alone in solving the problems that digital records pose.

Technically speaking

'Look at the IT community, rich and growing with $40 billion in investments in the federal sector next year,' Allen said. 'But I don't see the effective partnership with records management. I don't see the respect [for records management] or the inclusion of records management in the planning.'

Collaboration among CIOs and other IT executives, program managers and records managers is crucial, she said.

'If we got those three [groups] working together on records control structure, we'd eliminate a number of Excedrin headaches.'

Flyzik agreed. 'I'll admit that I don't pay the attention to the records program perhaps that I should,' he said. 'But I do recognize how critical it is to everything we do.'

He added: 'It's not an area where a CIO gets sizzle and glamour. It's not like a big e-gov portal rollout or something like that. But it's extremely important. And it's something that could bring a CIO down faster than anything else if they don't pay attention.'

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