Experts: Federal records management initiative step in right direction

Directives under a new federal records management initiative have the potential to vastly improve information governance in the public sector.

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In December 2011, President Barack Obama unveiled his "Presidential Memorandum -- Managing Government Records," which announced an executive-branch initiative to reform federal records management. Among the goals of the reform are a reduction in the cost of government, greater federal transparency and federal agencies that operate more efficiently.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) recently released specific directives around the initiative, including key deadline dates for compliance.

This will demand the establishment of a strong partnership between records management and information technology, which doesn't yet exist in many agencies.

Sue Trombley, director of consulting, Iron Mountain Inc.

Improving federal records management processes is much needed, experts say. "I think the current situation for records management at many federal government agencies is really a mess right now," said Brian Hill, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "In talking with federal government agencies over the last year or so, it's really clear that there are a lot of broken processes and defective applications around organizations today."

The goal of the federal records management initiative, according to the memorandum, is to "develop a 21st-century framework for the management of government records." Under the recent directives, all federal agencies' permanent records will be managed electronically to the "fullest extent possible" by the end of 2019.

The 2019 due date sounds like a long way off, but the OMB and NARA directives outline other key deadline dates. By Dec. 31, 2013, agencies must have completed a plan for how they intend to move all records to an electronic format. By Nov. 15 of this year, each agency must name a "senior agency official" to oversee its records management program.

Sue Trombley, director of consulting at information management firm Iron Mountain Inc., said having these senior officials in place quickly will be a huge benefit to the program. "We know from years of experience in the records and information management space that successful records management programs start from the top down, and this welcome news will lead agencies to a comprehensive strategy and consistent practices," she said.

The directive forces agencies to focus their attention on electronic records and the management of them in an electronic format, Trombley said. "This will demand the establishment of a strong partnership between records management and information technology, which doesn't yet exist in many agencies," she said.

In addition to trying to eliminate paper, the call for agencies to manage both permanent and temporary emails electronically is another plus of the initiative, Forrester's Hill said. A current common practice for managing emails is to simply print them out or convert them to PDF files, which is "not a recipe for success," he said.

Hill also applauded the directive's requirement that agencies complete different steps demonstrating compliance with federal records management statutes and regulations. By taking such steps as requiring appropriate training to support the federal records management program, the directive furthers the agencies' chances for proper records management. "All of these are important considerations -- the directive also specifies these organizations need to pursue how [they] will be able to apply records management policies and technologies to social media and cloud-based applications," Hill said.

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Another big supporter of the initiative is ARMA International, a not-for-profit records management professional association. In a letter to NARA, ARMA President Komal Gulich called the federal records management plan an opportunity for the government "to lead by example" and use core records management principles to address a drive for more accountable enterprises and greater organizational efficiencies.

"The recent emergence of these generally accepted record-keeping principles and an information governance maturity model to audit performance and benchmark progress will empower federal records officers to drive their organizations into this 21st-century framework," Gulich wrote in the letter.

Learning from the commercial sector?

Proven records and information management tactics used by private industry could help federal organizations in meeting the directive's requirements, according to Trombley. In fact, NARA and the OMB set a strong foundation for success by incorporating many records management best practices that have been proven in private industry, she said. "The public sector will be -- and has been -- influenced by, and can learn from, the experience and success of private-sector records and information management programs," she added.

President Obama's call to action already has a blueprint that private industry has proved will address fundamental records and information management areas, Trombley said. These specific best practices include prioritizing information based on legal and compliance needs, making information management a strategic, top-down priority at the organization, and maintaining a consistent audit routine to ensure compliance.

While the public sector could learn from the private one about records management best practices, the opposite could be true as well. The methodical approach taken by the federal records management initiative could bolster efforts by those in the private sector, Forrester's Hill said. For example, such practices as managing email as records, providing high-level training and determining clear project deadlines are all sound strategies for commercial enterprises. "I think that many of those in the commercial sector would benefit by following the directive as well," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Ben Cole, Associate Editor. For IT compliance news and updates throughout the week, follow us on Twitter @ITCompliance.

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