5 Recommendations for Meeting NARA’s Vision of a Digital Future

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Meeting the 2022 mandate will having agencies thinking retention policies, storage space and IT investments.

The National Archives and Records Administration released its draft FY 2018 – FY 2022 Strategic Plan, which sets a timeline for the modernization and digitization of federal records. As part of this records modernization agenda, more than 500 million pages of records are scheduled to be digitized and NARA aims to cease accepting non-electronic records from agencies by the end of 2022.

Given that NARA will only be accepting electronic formats with appropriate metadata tagging, how can agencies ensure that they will be on track to meet the new deadline? Here are five recommendations for keeping agencies focused on achieving this 2022 mandate.

  1. Evaluate and revise governance frameworks and retention periods.

Records management programs change over time and so should the information governance frameworks that guide those programs. This is the only way to keep pace with change, to ensure these programs remain up to date and prevent issues in the future. It is neither cost-effective nor prudent from a risk perspective to hold on to records indefinitely simply because retention and disposition dates cannot be definitively determined. Therefore, agencies need to ensure that their retention schedules support the agency mission, are regularly evaluated, and capable of clearly defining when records have exceeded their time-based or event-based need for retention.

  1. Re-evaluate impact of agency-owned inventory on real property and information accessibility.

Optimizing records storage space is a priority that has been established by numerous federal regulatory requirements demanding greater consolidation. Approximately 60 percent of agency records are stored onsite, including basement locations, cubicles and empty offices or conference rooms. However, these practices translate to overpriced real estate for paper record storage and can generate unnecessary risks and environmental exposures that agencies must spend even more on to mitigate. Additionally, agencies often find that real estate currently dedicated for records may be better utilized for mission-critical purposes instead.

Reducing agency-owned space will catalyze additional benefits and efficiency gains. Increasingly, agencies understand optimizing records management is about more than reorganizing and filing records. It is about enabling personnel to search, locate and review information to make better and faster decisions, or to respond to litigation or FOIA fulfillment requests. Both property and records managers recognize by optimizing the storage and management of records, they can help their organizations better achieve core mission goals and reduce their physical footprint. By considering alternatives to agency-owned inventories, agencies can select managed service providers that can devote a granular focus to their information assets. Agencies should conduct a business case analysis of outsourcing record storage compared to real estate chargebacks and overhead.

  1. Assess current inventory with particular emphasis on temporary records.

Every record made or received by an agency that documents the organization, its functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations and other activities must be identified, regardless of who created it or how the information was recorded. The documents also need to be classified, retained and disposed of by federal employees, in accordance with guidance procedures authorized by NARA. Across the federal government, agencies seek to optimize the physical space that they have, reduce costly investments and leverage industry solutions where and when it makes sense. These efforts force close examination of back-office operations, including current records storage and management practices. Completing a thorough record inventory assessment is crucial, allowing agencies to lay out a road map for cleaning up their inventory and ready themselves for NARA’s 2022 goal. This road map will be a primary tool for agencies as they evaluate which records would be better maintained outside of agency-owned spaces.

  1. Work with industry for off-site storage of essential temporary and permanent records.

By finding the right partner for dedicated, federally-compliant records storage services, agencies can reduce or alleviate concerns about moving records offsite, and delays that may hamper the delivery of government services. For many agencies, the ideal solution should reduce the current footprint through program management efficiencies and enhanced space design, while providing the flexibility to add or dispose of space as necessary. The space should meet all federal compliance standards with the ability to either be managed by agency personnel or records management specialists, depending upon the needs of the agency.

The right, knowledgeable partner should also be able to help agencies develop their road map to 2022 and provide market research on creative records program solutions. Ideally, this would include an analysis of how to create cost savings in their current program that can eventually be re-invested into agency information management priorities. Finally, it is important to identify contracting pathways to quickly realize these operational savings from moving to an off-site storage, usage-based model.     

  1. Invest in IT to ensure new processes lead to born-digital information and records.

Efficiency gains made from optimizing storage space and implementing more robust retention policies should free up some agency funding that can then be reinvested to improve records programs even further. After all, digitization is not just a goal unto itself, but the first stepping stone for continued and lasting improvement to the electronic management of federal records. Digitizing physical records and generating born-digital records will enable the application of additional technologies that can provide even further value, such as:

  • Search and Access: According to NARA’s own guidance, “automating records management will not only reduce the burden of records management responsibilities on individuals but will make federal government records and information easier to access because they are more consistently managed.” There are a number of approaches to automation, ranging from voice recognition search and digital assistants (bots) to intuitive, push-based content served up across the entire agency. As such, agencies should determine which solutions work best for them.
  • Metadata Tagging and Analytics: Moving toward the future, one of the most important aspects of digital recordkeeping will be improving metadata tagging and analytics. These technologies have already been widely applied across the government, spanning countless use cases, but they hold special value for digital records. Analytics can help agencies: eliminate time inefficiencies inherent to manual search and recovery; assess and manage their overall inventory; track inventory activity and spending data; identify risk points; and project future program needs.

By making these areas primary points of focus now, agencies will be in a much better position to meet NARA’s digitization goals for 2022. Making the shift will ensure agencies stop inefficient spending with on-site storage, stop continued storage of records that have exceeded their retention deadlines, and stop using outdated manual processes that are both time and resource intensive.

Michael Lewis is the vice president and general manager of Iron Mountain Government Solutions.

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