Sprehe: Seeking the records decider

It isn’t necessary to leave archiving decisions in the hands of users.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office on weaknesses in e-mail records management at the National Archives and Records Administration and four other agencies shows the need to adopt an entirely new approach to that issue.

Like everyone else — including NARA — GAO assumes and accepts that employees will decide whether e-mail messages are federal records. It is fundamentally wrong to lodge decision-making
for records management at the desktop PC level. It means the agency has as many records managers as it has e-mail users — a patent absurdity.

Managing e-mail at the desktop level is failing everywhere, and the GAO report merely adds more information to support the argument that the industry needs to look elsewhere for solutions.

Records management works best when it happens in the background in a way that is transparent to employees. E-mail management is no different. It will work best when it happens behind the scenes, out of sight of most agency employees.

Conventional wisdom says the technology for making e-mail management decisions at the software or server level is not yet mature. In my judgment, that mindset demonstrates a lack of imagination and an unwillingness to tackle old questions in new ways.

At the Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, records managers worked with program staff members to analyze key business processes. They tweaked commercial products to embed records management into the workflow. At precisely the right points in the process — and at no other time — an icon pops up on the user’s screen that asks, “Make record?”

The planning and analysis were laborious, but the result is highly effective records management with minimal intrusion for users.

The Air Force is moving even further with the implementation of its enterprise information management strategy. Using proven commercial products, the Air Force is investing heavily in automated metadata extraction for all information objects, including e-mail messages, and populating an enterprisewide metadata registry. Air Force officials believe they can construct a rules engine that will use the detailed metadata to automate records management decisions, including retention and disposition schedules. Desktop PC users will see none of that.

Another beauty of the Air Force strategy is that it holds the promise of supplying an enterprisewide solution for e-discovery, which involves providing electronic documents for evidence in legal cases.

Those and other innovative approaches that some agencies are pursuing are being accomplished primarily with existing commercial technology. This is not rocket science. Rather the solutions involve imaginative people parsing old management problems in new ways using proven tools available now.

Agencies will never train their senior officials — let alone every rank-and-file user — to make well-informed decisions about e-mail records management. Why not accept that fact and experiment with new approaches that really work?

Sprehe (jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com) is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington.