NARA prepares for a new era in records management

What makes a record

GCN: What is the basic definition of an e-record as opposed to something that is disposable? For example, an e-mail that says, 'Jane, let's meet for lunch today?' as compared with 'Jane, let's meet for lunch today to discuss the IT procurement?'


BELLARDO: Technically, for federal agencies, the definition of a record in 44 U.S.C. 3301 applies to government information, whether in paper, electronic, or other format or medium.


There are two basic questions to answer: Was it created (or received) in the course of doing agency business? Does it need to be kept to document agency business?


If the answer to both questions is 'yes,' then it is a record.


The real question then is, How long do I need to keep it? Records schedules provide that answer. While e-mail can be used to conduct substantive business, a lot of e-mails, like the first example, are either personal messages or very transitory in nature.


The second example depends on the context. If the message were from a manager to a subordinate and the purpose of the discussion were just to give the manager a brief and informal status report, the agency probably would not need a record that such a discussion had occurred.


However, if the manager was an assistant secretary and Jane was an assistant secretary in another cabinet department, and the purpose of the discussion was to start negotiations for a major, interagency procurement aimed at an objective defined in statute or by the president, then both agencies would probably want to have a record of when the negotiations began.

NARA's e-records team includes, clockwise from top left, Lewis Bellardo, Kenneth Thibodeau, Nancy Allard, Reynolds Cahoon and Mark Giguere.

Rachael Golden

The numbers are enormous'1 billion military personnel files and 600 million Census Bureau records, to name just two examples. Federal agencies are producing millions of records each year and are struggling to manage them.

In addition, records management has not been the most popular subject among agency executives, leaving records managers paddling against the managerial current.

The National Archives and Records Administration recognized the e-records glut early on and since 1997 has been working on a solution'the Electronic Records Archive system.

But the new application, for which NARA is competing a contract between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla., is at least three years away. In the meantime, NARA is working with agencies to lessen the impact of managing these records.

GCN writers Joab Jackson, Jason Miller and Richard W. Walker sat down with NARA's deputy archivist Lewis Bellardo, CIO and assistant archivist Reynolds Cahoon and Electronic Records Management e-government project co-managers Nancy Allard and Mark Giguere to discuss how NARA is helping agencies cope with these challenges.

GCN: What are the biggest challenges for NARA when it comes to managing electronic records?

BELLARDO: The biggest challenges for us relate to the electronic records and the whole wave of technological change that has occurred in last several years. The challenges have dealt both in terms of how agencies and programs manage their records for business purposes, and how to share government information across agencies, across space and across time.

We have to really remake our entire program as it relates to the information lifecycle. The big enchilada for us, of course, in terms of development, is the Electronic Records Archive.

The other side of that is what is happening within the agencies and how they cope with the management of government information.

What we have found is there is an enormous explosion in electronic information within the government in the last several years, including the work with the Internet and the Web. In addition to the multiplicity of formats, the scariest part of it all is the obsolescence'the technological obsolescence of hardware and software formats and so forth.

Our strategies have to take into consideration that obsolescence'and ERA will dissipate part of all that'but also how to deal with short-term problems agencies are facing.

GCN: How has the glut of e-records af-fected agencies?

BELLARDO: Much of the impact of records management has flowed down to the end user. Concurrent with that, there has been a massive downsizing of records management file clerks'the people we used to rely on to keep things straight and find things when we needed them.

One of the things that has happened as a result is a kind of disconnect between IT and records management'the folks who are responsible for building systems and the folks who are responsible developing the regimen for managing the records.

In addition to that, there has been a disconnect between the people who are doing the business of the agency and, again, the records managers trying to catch up, oftentimes long after new systems have been built.

GCN: What are some of the barriers to better records management?

BELLARDO: We've been very active with the Interagency Committee on Government Information, and part of that work has been the electronic records policy working group. That group has identified several barriers.

One barrier is that e-records are not being managed as business assets for the agencies. As a result, information is not being shared as much as it can be across government and within agencies.

Another problem is that it appears that agencies, because of these disconnects, do not view records management as critical to carrying out and supporting their mission. As a result, agencies have not provided, and we have not provided, the tools and training that are needed.

GCN: Is the case for records management stronger in the electronic world than in the paper world because of the risks associated with losing documents?

BELLARDO: We do believe that in this electronic world, just as in the old paper world, there is a strong case to be made for records management.

Records, when properly managed, mean that people can locate information they need when they need it, can share that information within the business function itself'and also across business lines within the agencies and even across government'and they can categorize information in ways they can use it more effectively.

Some of the solutions or tactics we have been trying to focus on deal with people, some of them deal with processes and some deal with the technology.

A key to all that will be the success of the Electronic Records Archive program, because it will not only support preserving records over time, but also support the sharing, utilization and access to information across business domains and across space.

GCN: What is NARA doing to help agencies deal with the glut of e-records?

BELLARDO: Two of the tactics we are developing [include] one internal and one external. We will issue a status report on many of the changes and the progress we have made in the last year in records management. It talks about the strategies we have been following and the 20-plus tactics we have been pursuing.

The internal tactic is a change in how we provide technical assistance to the agencies. We have developed a resource allocation methodology over the past year and have used it during the course of the summer to identify what we believe are the most critical program areas within the government that need attention. It is based on three criteria.

[The first is] the Federal Enterprise Architecture's Business Reference Model and the extent to which the subfunction in the business line produces records that impact the rights and accountability of citizens and the government.

The second is the extent to which the program area is likely to generate records of continuing value or what we consider archival value.

The third is the extent to which we believe that the records in that program area are at risk.

We end up running these three criteria against the Business Reference Model. And we have developed a work plan for 2005 based on the ideas we have to go where we think we are needed the most.

We will be continuing to do this over the coming years. It is a simple change in how we allocate our resources, but we feel it will have a big impact.

We also realize that records managers will have massive challenges over the next several years and they will have to have a broader and deeper set of skills.

So we have totally revamped our training program this past year, both in terms of content and how it will be delivered, whether it happens to be a traditional class or whether webcasting or some other form of distance learning.

GCN: For 2005, which areas need the most work or which ones are under consideration for the resource allocation methodology?

BELLARDO: We are still in the process of making those final choices. The work plan will be put into place at the end of this fiscal year. We are committing existing resources and staff resources, but we are still fine-tuning the criteria for choosing the areas that need the most help.

In 2004, we used the methodology with the Homeland Security Department as it was putting all of its components together to identify the areas that needed the greatest attention.

We selected three or four areas, and they added a couple more which they thought were also problems. We've been working with them through our targeted assistance program.

ALLARD: This year we also have targeted research and development, and scientific records. We had a national science team of our Washington area and regional records management specialists working together. We also had a Fire Project, where we worked with the agencies that deal with wild fires because that is a multi-agency effort.

GCN: How has NARA helped agencies transfer records to the permanent archives?

ALLARD: This fiscal year we have been working on additional transfer guidance formats for permanent records to come to the archives. We've issued [guidance] for digital photography and geospatial information systems. We also issued guidance for Web records earlier this month.

We also have issued the second guidance in our enterprisewide electronic-records management initiative. We have been working on version three of the DOD standard as well.

GIGUERE: In the upcoming fiscal year, DOD is going to be issuing version three of the standard for public comment. We are going to be working with [the group issuing] the enterprisewide records management applications. The Environmental Protection Agency will be working on a series of products related to the deployment of a pilot enterprisewide records management system.

GCN: How are you working with agencies to get records management to become a part of the everyday work that IT, procurement and other employees perform?

CAHOON: In order for records management to really become operationalized and institutionalized, it needs to be embedded into agencies in at least five specific ways. Records management service components, which are an integral part of this, need to be understood in the context of these other embedding processes.

First, records management needs to be an integral part of the capital investment and planning process. When a system is first identified as an initiative at an agency, you have to understand what the records management implications are and ensure they are funded.

Second, records management needs to be an integral part of an agency's enterprise architecture because it crosses all of an agency's business lines and covers all of the government's business lines. It is a key business process.

The third thing is when an agency goes through a business process re-engineering as a part of a development of any application, records management questions need to be asked during the redesign of that business process. At each transaction, you need to identify: Is a record required to document this transaction? If so, what information is necessary to ensure its adequate and proper documentation?

The fourth area revolves around building records management into the systems development lifecycle so that, from requirements all the way through to acceptance testing and final implementation, records management requirements are identified in the business process design and are traceable.

In the end, the records officer can sign off on the system and say there is adequate and proper documentation.

Finally, a lot of the functionality necessary to manage records in applications should be able to be reused. So in fiscal 2005, we will develop a set of requirements for records management components.

To ensure that records are managed most effectively, the less user interaction required the better. If the business process describes what a record is and what information is necessary to ensure that record is properly documented, then the system should care for those functions as transparently to the user as possible.

inside gcn

  • power grid (elxeneize/Shutterstock.com)

    Electric grid protection through low-cost sensors, machine learning

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group