Closing in on records management

Defining what your agency means by 'records' is as important as the systems that manage them

Records management

A records management system can be a standalone solution or part of a financial management, file management or enterprise resource planning suite. To create a successful RFP, there are several important considerations to keep in mind.

  • Define what a record is at your agency. It could be anything from paper records to e-mail, spreadsheets and multimedia files data. Any solution you choose should have the flexibility to define new record types.

  • Specify the metadata needed to describe each record. This could include the location of physical records or the author, date of origin, access history, etc. of electronic records.

  • Get a handle on where your records originate and in what form. Do they come from the public? From field personnel? Internal sources? Cross-agency sources?
  • Decide whether your agency will retain current business processes or use the transition as an opportunity to re-engineer workflow.

  • Ensure that any solution you consider can integrate with existing systems and applications. It should be able to access information in e-mail and databases. Built-in connections to widely used repositories such as Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and Sharepoint are important.

  • Unless there's a compelling reason to move records to a centralized location, plan on a distributed system. The solution should use rules-based, automatic classification to enter and track records.

  • Determine the rules that govern how long your agency must store different classes of records. When can records be destroyed, if at all?

  • To plan for storage, you should understand how many records you have now, how many you add annually and how that might change over time. Experts contend that a successful records management system will actually attract more records.

  • Figure out who will be using the system, and how. Agency staff, nonagency staff, citizens? How many concurrent users will the system need to support?

  • If the records management system is mainly for agency staff, do you want to include automatic routing or workflow capabilities? Role-based access can help simplify control over records.

  • Decide what modes of searching the system should support, and make sure the system can index incoming records automatically.

  • Define the reporting capabilities you'll need for your solution. What kinds of queries do you require?

  • Spell out the privacy and security safeguards your agency requires. Make sure vendors can adhere to the necessary regulations.

  • Review government standards such as the Federal Enterprise Architecture Records Management Profile, NARA regulations and Defense Department 5015.2 standards. Some agencies may need to check out nongovernmental standards such as the United Nations Archives and Records Management guidelines and ISO 15489.

  • Plan for the future. The solution should be scalable in order to accommodate growth.

The business of government isn't business'it's records. People entrust vital records, legal records, historical records and other records to federal, state and local bodies. These government agencies must keep as many records as any business, while simultaneously providing public access and satisfying numerous regulations. Records management systems are needed to help acquire, categorize, store, query, recall and dispose of records quickly and efficiently.

'Government has had records managers forever; automated systems are different, but the basic concepts remain the same,' said Barry Murphy, senior analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass.

Choosing features

In fact, there are many records management features to consider when deploying new systems'whether your agency is looking for a standalone solution or records management as part of another system, such as financial management or enterprise resource planning.

'A request for proposals for pure records management is rare,' said Kathleen Kummer, director of government solutions for OpenText Corp. of Lincolnshire, Ill.
Nonetheless, records management permeates everything government does, and ensuring you acquire the capabilities you need means spelling out requirements.

The first question an agency should answer when looking for a records management system is, What is a record? This is not a philosophical or rhetorical puzzle, but a practical and essential point that needs settling at the outset of any new project. What does your agency consider a record? For many, paper forms are a natural. 'But now it's necessary to manage things that aren't necessarily traditional records,' Murphy said.

Types of records

Slowly but surely, most records these days are in the form of electronic files: data, document images, e-mail, graphics, spreadsheets, presentations, sound files, video. 'Your definition of a record should encompass a wide variety, not just paper, e-mail, and so forth,' said Rizwan Ahmed, CIO of Louisiana. 'Many other formats, such as voice and video, may also be important.'

Any records management system must therefore be flexible enough to permit defining new, possibly unique, record types. For example, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources needs to handle 200-page production logs for the oil and gas industry. 'Accommodating nonstandard formats is essential,' Ahmed said.

In addition to the records themselves, your agency will probably need to maintain metadata'data about data'for each record. Not only does metadata aid in actually finding electronic records, but some of the information that travels with a document, for instance, could be considered a record itself. Think of a Word document that has been through many revisions. Some of those revisions, while they don't make it into the final document, could have significance that requires treating them as records.

Other important metadata? It's certainly important to know the date and place a record originated. A trail of access (who has seen this record?) could also prove significant, especially when it comes to meeting regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. E-mail headers, footers and recipients can be useful and require being stored as records or parts of records.

Ultimately, a records management system must be able to deftly handle whatever your agency considers a record. 'It's the content of a record that's important, not its format,' Ahmed said.

Once you've defined a record, you need to establish where your agency's records come from. From internal computers? External sources of information? Paper forms?

Getting records into the system can be a chore. 'A flexible rule-based system is necessary to categorize records automatically and intelligently,' Ahmed said. There is such a large volume of records to process that automation removes human error. Still, every system should be capable of human categorization.

From there, a key decision will be whether to keep current business processes or re-engineer them to work smoothly with a new records management system. Keeping existing processes may make changes more palatable to users, but simplified, streamlined processes may have greater long-term benefits.

Integration with all sources of records is important, especially with office communication applications such as Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Outlook.

'Integration with existing applications reduces the need for staff training and minimizes maintenance issues,' Ahmed said. Look for records management systems that have out-of-the-box connectivity with major database, repository and e-mail systems.
Beyond those canned connectors, the system should make it easy to integrate with unique or legacy sources without requiring a major development project.

A records management system should also interact well with your agency's other applications. 'Records management intersects with many other systems,' Murphy said. These include imaging systems, enterprise content management applications, messaging platforms, and file and storage management systems.

Not surprisingly, storage and storage management are significant parts of a records management system. Therefore, it's important for an agency to get a handle on the size of their records management needs and recognize that any estimate you make will necessarily increase. That's because successful records management solutions will attract more records.

'For example, e-mail is growing exponentially,' Kummer said.

Having a place to put it all is just one part of the equation. Most agencies operate under specific legal mandates that dictate how long they must store records, factors that must be considered in a records management and related storage management system. This is where metadata is most valuable because it can help administrators understand whether a record can ever be destroyed, and if so, when.

Managing the lifecycle of a record will also be affected by how an agency chooses to build its overall system. There are currently two broad philosophies for handling records.

One is to move all records into a single, centralized system. That sounds simple, but it's not realistic for typically large and complex sets of records. The other approach is to leave the record where it is and link to the record for indexing. This results in less duplication.

'A federated system is preferred now, where you don't move the material, but have rules for retention,' Murphy said.

Even if you don't move records, your agency should ensure that backup and recovery options are part of the plan. Louisiana has become better versed in disaster recovery after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 'Backups are an essential part of any records management system,' Ahmed said.

Acquiring and storing records are definitely twin pillars of a records management system, but it's also important to consider who will be accessing your agency's records.

Many records require interagency access. In fact, potential users could cross federal, state and local jurisdictions. It could also be necessary to grant access to external parties, such as physicians or lawyers. And clearly, many records will be made available to the public. The system must be able to support all users, whether they access records sporadically or in droves.

Daunting task

Of course, actually implementing a records management system can be daunting. 'People often ask how we're going to integrate records management with their legacy system,' Kummer said.

The good news is that government records management systems use essentially the same technology as private-sector systems, so there is plenty of experience to draw from.
Because agencies are likely to require more than one records management system, it's important that deployment be incorporated into a larger architecture. 'In Louisiana, we set standards and procedures to maintain consistency for all state agencies,' Ahmed said.

The high-level view is helpful for ensuring easy integration of hardware and software platforms. 'Larger RFPs often include hardware, software, services, imaging, storage and so forth,' said Kummer.

The Federal Enterprise Architecture Records Management Profile, produced by the National Archives and Records Administration, the Office of Management and Budget Architecture and Infrastructure Committee, and the Federal Chief Information Officers Council, specifies a consistent approach for governmentwide federal records management.

In addition, there are several other guidelines agencies should examine when planning a records management system, including NARA's overall regulations for governing records [,]. And while there isn't a government-wide body testing records management systems for standards compliance, the Defense Department's Joint Interoperability Test Command comes the closest. Its testing of records management products for compliance with DOD Directive 5015.2-STD has become a de facto federal standard, endorsed by NARA several years ago [see for more].

Clearly, privacy and security are paramount in all records management systems. But remember that the public is the ultimate beneficiary of a good records management system.

Said Louisiana's Ahmed, 'We're providing a dashboard-type portal so it's easy to observe how [programs] are going.

Edmund X. DeJesus (<>) is a freelance technical writer in Norwood, Mass.


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