4 Steps to Boost Records Management Practices


Federal employees and managers aren't confident about what actually constitutes a record.

April Chen is product manager at Iron Mountain Government Services.

News reports of the past year contained more than a few indicators that the state of federal records and information management is not living up to its potential. According to internal self-assessments, oversight reports and employee surveys, one of the key challenges in reaching an ideal management state is a lack of confidence regarding what constitutes a record and the proper policy for handling them.

In fact, it was roughly a year and a half ago the Government Accountability Office reported a lack of current data, agency personnel and formal policy framework were driving records management uncertainty and noncompliance.

Agencies have been taking steps to address these issues, and have worked to mitigate self-reported challenges by designating or reaffirming knowledgeable staff and developing or implementing management plans.

To highlight the progress agencies have made, a May 2015 GAO report on information management identified significant improvements in RIM practices, with the majority of agencies properly designating a senior agency official in charge of records management self-reporting and taking action to address the requirements laid out by the joint Office of Management and Budget and National Archives and Records Administration's “Managing Government Records” directive. Despite this progress, more needs to be done to fulfill this responsibility on a governmentwide basis.

A recent Market Connections survey unearthed a number of factors related to agencywide confidence levels including a focus on compliance, and identified three primary challenges in adhering to regulations: a lack of awareness of policies (46 percent); tremendous growth in records (28 percent); and a lack of communication between IT and records management (28 percent).

Only 15 percent of all respondents strongly agreed their RIM policy is meeting the needs of their agency and only 28 percent of total respondents felt they have the necessary tools and procedures in place to comply with the regulations governing information for federal agencies.

The majority of total respondents indicated there is room for improvement in terms of updating the tools and procedures they already have in place. So what can be done? Here’s a look at four steps agencies can consider today that can have a significant impact:

The Benefits of Formal Training

Increasing the level of training records management professionals receive could help to mitigate this lack of confidence in the capabilities of agency records programs. Of the survey’s respondents, one-third indicated they had only received informal training in managing records under their immediate control and 19 percent had received no training whatsoever.

Agencies need to enable records professionals with more formal training programs to enhance their knowledge, as well as better understand the compliance process and requirements. Underscoring the need for more formalized training, the survey results revealed a strong positive correlation in respondents who received formal training and their ability to comply with records laws and regulations and high levels of confidence that their agency’s records are not as risk. In other words, a trained employee is a more confident and compliant employee.

Meeting in the Middle

As noted, agencies are responsible for designating a senior agency official to lead the reporting and compliance efforts. These officials are required to hold a position at the assistant secretary level or higher, meaning their reporting and compliance role is not their only, or even primary, responsibility, making it very challenging to balance their primary responsibilities with the complex burden of coordinating a compliant records program.

Instead of trying to force agencywide change through a purely top-down approach, agencies should be working to meet employees in the middle. By establishing a formal training program, senior agency officials can be sure end-users know how to properly handle records and why doing so is important. This bottom-up training complements the top-down direction from senior agency officials and makes the process work more smoothly from both the macro and micro perspectives.

Automated Retention

Agencies should also be working to provide the proper tools to records officers and end-users alike. By incorporating an automated retention process into their records program, agencies would be giving records officers the tools they need to establish compliant processes, while removing the burden of manual retention from the end-users.  

Through automation, records can be properly managed across their designated lifecycle, allowing agencies to:

  • Create and centrally manage retention rules
  • Apply policy consistently regardless of format or location
  • Update retention rules continuously and deliver them online through their enterprise content management systems
  • Filter and search for documents when needed for eDiscovery, FOIA or other purposes
  • Maintain an appropriate audit trail, including role-based permissions and security

Implement Reporting Metrics and Accountability

There is a clear lack of measurement/monitoring and internal control of information management in federal agencies. According to the survey, 27 percent of total respondents are not involved at all in measuring or monitoring their records management compliance. If agencies cannot effectively measure – or report – their performance, there is no way to determine if change is required or if there is a need for additional funding.

Accountability is an essential factor to meaningful performance measurement, and adherence to established policy should be a fundamental component of every agency’s metrics analysis. By instituting a formal information governance framework with regularly enforced certification periods, agencies can put the necessary internal controls and processes in place to keep their records and information management programs compliant.

Agencies are putting effort toward compliance, but are in need of direction, resources and proper funding from above, as well as more formal training, measurement, accountability and automation. Incremental steps can result in big changes in the ability to meet regulatory compliance, and agencies should consider these as they move their programs forward.

(Image via jdwfoto/ Shutterstock.com)