Why Gov Needs Better Records Management

This post is informed by our recent GovLoop Academy Course, Your Playbook for Records Management.

The 2012 Managing Government Records Directive has been touted as a major achievement for modernizing federal records management. Moving from paper-based to electronic records helps accelerate information searches and increases accessibility. It also greatly reduces the costs of storing hard-copy records.

The directive applies to all types of records across federal agencies. That means it includes emails, reports, spreadsheets, policies, manuals, social media and more. The point is to preserve records that are important to government operations and citizens, while safely destroying records of no value.

The directive spells out two main goals for federal agencies.

The first goal is to, "Require electronic recordkeeping to ensure transparency, efficiency and accountability." Each federal agency was required to set up a system for managing permanent and temporary email records by the end of 2016. By 2019, all records (not just email), must be kept in accessible electronic formats.

The second goal is to, "Demonstrate compliance with federal records management statutes and regulations." This part of the directive calls for the designation of a Senior Agency Official (or SAO). Each agency's official oversees their entire records management system. The official makes sure that permanent records are identified and then transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, on schedule.

Before we continue, let's define a few terms. A permanent record is just that – permanent. This type of record is preserved as part of the National Archives of the United States. Temporary records are disposed of immediately or after a specified time or event. Items that don't meet the legal definition of a record are classified as non-records.

But it’s not just the 2012 directive that’s getting agencies to rethink the way they maintain records. Other pieces of legislation contribute to the overhaul of federal records management, too.

For example, the OMB's 2012 Freeze the Footprint initiative limited the growth of warehouses for federal records storage. Over a three-year period, agencies exceeded the policy's objective by cutting 21.4 million square feet of space. And the Open Data Executive Order – also from the Obama administration - instructs federal agencies to manage information in a way that makes it open, discoverable and usable by the public.

With those initiatives already showing success, you are probably wondering why federal agencies are still working on records management.

Simply put, it’s getting harder to tackle because of the exponential growth of federal records across different platforms and technologies. NARA maintains federal records that it deems valuable over time, which is about 2 to 5 percent of the records generated each year.

That means about 10 billion pages of text records and 12 million maps, charts, architectural and engineering drawings from across government. That's not all. Add 25 million still photographs and graphics, 24 million aerial photographs, 300,000 reels of motion picture film, and 400,000 video and sound recordings. All together, that’s 133 terabytes of electronic data that must be preserved. And that’s just one year's worth of records.

To meet the 2019 deadline, agencies must abandon tried-and-true methods and shift to an entirely digital format. Many lack resources needed to "go electronic" while maintaining regular services.

Funding is a particularly sore point. The directive created a 2019 deadline for compliance but didn't come with a dedicated budget. Compliance requires new systems, processes, policies and employee training. But budgets have remained flat or even decreased over recent years.

Even so, the majority of agencies have been working toward the 2019 goal. But they're still not totally up to date. Overcoming challenges to meet the mandate requires a solid strategy. In our recent GovLoop Academy course, we provide a playbook to create that strategy. Be sure to check it out!

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