Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

Pandemic tests electronic records management

As the Office of Management and Budget’s M-19-21 deadline approaches for federal agencies to move to fully electronic records management (ERM), GCN’s sibling site FCW gathered a group of records management executives and other stakeholders to see how their efforts are progressing, especially in light of the challenges introduced by the pandemic. The discussion was on the record but not for individual attribution (see sidebar for the list of participants), and the quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Here's what the group had to say.

Participants

Brett Abrams
Electronic Records Archivist, National Archives and Records Administration

Walter Bohorfoush
Director, Records Management Office, Department of Transportation

Laurence Brewer
Chief Records Officer, National Archives and Records Administration

David Brown
Archivist, Office of Records Management Services, Office of Support Operations, Securities and Exchange Commission

Edward Horton
Senior Advisor, Construction and Facility Operations, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce

Ratima Kataria
Deputy CIO, Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services

John Mancini
President, Content Results LLC

Mark Patrick
Leader, Information Management Team, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense

Jeanette Plante
Policy Director, Office of Records Management, Department of Justice

Dave Simmons
Senior Records Officer, General Services Administration

Scott Swidersky
Vice President of Enterprise Content Management, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A. Inc., and President, Quality Associates Inc.

Bob Valente
Project Manager, Office Management Category, General Services Administration

Note: FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider led the roundtable discussion. The Dec. 10, 2020, gathering was underwritten by Quality Associates Inc., but both the substance of the discussion and the recap on these pages are strictly editorial products. Neither QAI nor any of the roundtable participants had input beyond their Dec. 10 comments.

Once the workforce went remote, agencies rushed  to enable more virtual collaboration, adding new obstacles to ERM. "We had a nice rollout planned for Teams, and records management was being built into that whole process," one official said. "All of a sudden, that got thrown out the window as Teams was just immediately pushed out to everybody when they went home in March."

Another official echoed those comments, saying: "Our Teams rollout was rapid and not well-planned. It sort of filled the gap, but it was stated at the outset that this is not a platform of record, and everybody in the agency who uses this platform has to drag anything of value that they want to maintain as a record into their own system."

The first official predicted that fast rollouts will be the norm. "Records management is going to be in there as part of that rollout, but we're going to have to find the gaps and fill them in as we're going along down the path of deploying these things."

The year-long emphasis on maximum telework and new priorities prompted by COVID-19 have hindered some efforts to comply with the M-19-21 memo, especially for agencies that are working to digitize vast archives of paper records on-site. For the most part, though, participants said the pandemic has accelerated agencies' embrace of digital tools that will make ERM easier.

One official said agencies won't go back to paper-based processes, while another noted that "since March, people have stopped asking for paper. So my assumption is they're still doing the same jobs, they're just finding the information elsewhere."

The downside may be a surge in electronic records. Collaboration tools that were being tested in small pilot projects or still on the drawing board are now being used constantly, one participant pointed out. "That's generating a whole new source of information -- like this [roundtable] meeting being recorded."

At least one participant was skeptical that agencies wouldn't simply go back to old ways when public health precautions allow. "I wonder how we can measure success against that until we get back and re-engaged face-to-face and see what's left over of that culture," the official said.

Another expressed concern that budgets will be further squeezed by all the new pandemic-prompted priorities, which could make it impossible to hit the M-19-21 deadlines.

"I do think we need an extension," but not because of COVID-19, the official said. "We need an extension because, more and more and more, we understand the complexities of moving forward."

Several participants said the push for better metadata is the top priority in 2021. M-19-21 instructed agencies to have their records in electronic form "to the fullest extent possible" by the end of 2019, while the 2022 deadline is for managing "all permanent records in an electronic format and with appropriate metadata."

"I've spent a lot of time in the last couple of months going through our holdings to sort out what needs to be digitized and where we need more metadata," one official said. "That's about the various fields of mission-specific metatags as well as all the attributes that [the National Archives and Records Administration] is looking for."

A particular challenge for another official is bringing records management to systems built around datasets rather than documents. "What used to be collected in forms is now being put into databases and reconfigured for reporting, trending and approval and all that," the official said. "We need to think even further upstream of not just what data is being captured in these systems, but who is designing these systems to solve problems. And that pushes records management into that information governance of asking: Why are we designing this?"

That brings ERM into the realm usually managed by CIOs, CTOs and now chief data officers, the official added. "So we're in the middle of working with them through their IT processes. But I'm comfortable with where we are."

A longer version of this article was first posted to FCW, a sibling site to GCN.

About the Author

Troy K. Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of both FCW and GCN, two of the oldest and most influential publications in public-sector IT. Both publications (originally known as Federal Computer Week and Government Computer News, respectively) are owned by GovExec. Mr. Schneider also serves GovExec's General Manager for Government Technology Brands.

Mr. Schneider previously served as New America Foundation’s Director of Media & Technology, and before that was Managing Director for Electronic Publishing at the Atlantic Media Company, where he oversaw the online operations of The Atlantic Monthly, National Journal, The Hotline and The Almanac of American Politics, among other publications. The founding editor of NationalJournal.com, Mr. Schneider also helped launch the political site PoliticsNow.com in the mid-1990s, and worked on the earliest online efforts of the Los Angeles Times and Newsday. He began his career in print journalism, and has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, WashingtonPost.com, Slate, Politico, Governing, and many of the other titles listed above.

Mr. Schneider is a graduate of Indiana University, where his emphases were journalism, business and religious studies.

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