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Metadata is the Missing Ingredient in Agencies’ Move to Electronic Record Keeping, Watchdog Says

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Faced with virtual mountains of emails, social media missives and other electronic records, federal agencies over the past few years have faced tight deadlines for modernizing their record-keeping process.

A new scorecard of sorts from the Government Accountability Office finds measured progress on a 2012 White House directive on transitioning toward electronic record keeping. Most agencies appointed senior officials responsible for managing the transition and put out plans detailing initial steps they’ve taken to manage all permanent records -- including emails -- in an electronic format.

That’s welcome news as the revelations of dubious record-keeping practices by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cast a harsh political spotlight on the often-obscure area of agency records retention.

The 2012 directive envisions an entirely electronic record-keeping process by 2019.  

However, some big question marks remain, particularly when it comes to technology.

A key aim of the directive is to automate the archiving process for agencies. For many, this process still consists largely of printing out and manually filing paper documents, and there are fears the hard-copy approach isn’t keeping pace with modern communications methods.

“Greater reliance on electronic communication and information technology systems has radically increased the volume and diversity of information that agencies must manage,” GAO auditors wrote in a letter to Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Tom Carper, D-Del., of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, that accompanied the report.

The National Archives and Records Administration drafted a plan for agencies last year identifying tools that support electronic records management and that can be used to automatically transfer permanent records to NARA.

This “transfer guidance,” however, didn’t include metadata requirements. That may seem small, but without metadata, searching for and retrieving electronic records can be a hassle. For example, the metadata for a particular document can include when it was written, who the author is and even a short description of its contents.

Agencies are also still waiting on updated guidance from the Office of Management and Budget setting out how cloud computing systems should conform to the Federal Records Act.

The 2012 directive instructed OMB with rewriting specific guidance -- the Circular A-130 in IT budget parlance -- that spells out how agencies should incorporate records-management requirements when moving to cloud-based services or storage solutions. More and more agencies are migrating applications to the cloud -- cloud spending currently tops $2 billion, according to federal statistics -- but there’s a lack of concrete guidance on how information stored off-premises can be captured by record-keepers.

OMB now says that update will come by the end of the year.

The GAO report revealed that at one time Archives officials considered hosting a single cloud-based repository for agencies’ unclassified electronic records, but ultimately backed away from the idea.

The 2012 directive called on NARA to conduct a feasibility study for creating a secure cloud-based service for storing and managing electronic records on behalf of agencies.

However, the study determined costs were not “practical,” GAO said, in part because of the large user base, the significant investment required to establish such a cloud-based repository and the infrastructure needed to manage large volumes of agency-owned records.

(Image via hin255/ Shutterstock.com)

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