The August 2012 Presidential Directive on Managing Government Records is a major achievement for the federal records management community -- and it is the cornerstone for the long-awaited transition to electronic recordkeeping by federal agencies. But what does it really mean?
 
As a former federal records officer and former Director of the Modern Records Program of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), I have taken a keen interest in the directive, of which a large number of articles, blogs and columns have appeared about its implications. And I would like to bring my perspective as a federal records manager to the discussion.  
 
My underlying message is that agencies can meet the directive’s targets if they carefully scope their response to its requirements and their agency goals, following a seven-year plan and bringing people, policy and process into the solution mix to supplement technology.  
 
Here are 12 ideas agencies can use to leverage staff rather than money on not only electronic recordkeeping goals, but also other goals that are largely restatements of existing requirements.

1.  Read the directive very carefully.

The directive's wording has been crafted very carefully -- and that applies to what is both said and not said. Part 1, Goal 1, for example, states that agencies “should commit immediately to the transition to a digital government.” Target 1.1, however, only requires agencies to manage all permanent electronic records in electronic format to the extent possible by 2019. In many agencies, especially smaller ones, there may not be many permanent records, so consult your records schedules, then review the Code of Federal Regulations to understand how NARA understands “manage.” Your challenges may be smaller than you envisioned.      
 
 

2.  Identify the problem(s) you are trying to solve.

The directive defines goals and targets; it leaves the means open. Obviously you want to meet the targets, but I’m sure there are numerous agency-specific records and information problems that could be addressed also. Continuing the example above, you are only required to manage your permanent records electronically, but you may choose to manage all of your records electronically because there is a well-defined business case for doing so, such as minimizing the number of records on hand to simplify e-Discovery responses, or maximizing document retention to support knowledge management. Electronic recordkeeping can address either, but your implementations would be different depending on your business case, hence the need to identify the specific problem(s) you wish to solve.
 
 

3. Determine what is a “good enough” records management solution.

Many federal records managers bristle at the thought of a “good enough” records management program – they want to have the best in the federal government. I would argue that they should focus on being the best for their agency – its mission, priorities and budget. That means being “good enough” to meet both internal and external requirements.  For example, the records manager in a small agency may want a records management application, but given the limited number of permanent records, a more manual process might provide a “good enough” medium-term solution at lower cost.
 
 

4. Take a holistic view.

From a holistic perspective, you need to understand four major elements of the ecosystem in which records and other information assets are managed:
  • The records and other information assets your agency creates and maintains, their characteristics and requirements, the rewards and risks associated with their management, and available resources.  
  • The needs and expectations of business process owners and staff who create agency records; the records program that provides RIM policy and services; and the information architecture which provides context and support for the records management.
  • Four agency components that can either facilitate records management or erect barriers:  agency staff, agency culture, agency policies, and the existing and planned IT infrastructure.
  • External forces framing “good enough” records management including the regulatory framework (including the directive), and the expectations of the community, agency suppliers (e.g., contractors), and customers (e.g., the regulated community).
Transitioning to electronic recordkeeping will require an assessment of all ecosystem elements so an appropriate path can be chosen.
 
 

5. Take the long view.

The directive has very specific (and tight) timeframes, so use all of the time alloted. The email management target is the end of 2016 and the permanent records target is the end of 2019. Provided agencies start quickly, these targets allow time for project planning, evaluating the current situation, developing policy and training, budgeting to procure necessary technology, and gradually rolling out solutions.  
 
Another reason for taking a longer view is that successful implementations of electronic recordkeeping are done in stages, often over several years.
 
 

6. Assemble your forces.

Records management doesn’t succeed on its own -- it needs supporters, allies and champions.  
  • Supporters see the benefits from records management such as approved destruction of unneeded records and information products, or the ability to find needed records for audit or litigation.  
  • Allies are other information managers who pursue similar information management goals. 
  • Champions will represent the program at the senior level of the organization. 
Your “forces” should be brought together participate in a Directive Response Team and serve as a steering council for the program and an advocacy group to promote its mission, products and budget requests.
 
 

7. Break the problem into manageable chunks.

The ecosystem review discussed above provides keys to understanding your records and how they can be managed successfully. Breaking the body of records into constituent parts allows agencies to apply appropriate management controls to important categories of records. Program staff are a necessary part of the process because they will only buy into an electronic recordkeeping solution if the records warrant the effort. The initial breakdown is by organization or function. And the easiest solution is to follow the approach used in your records retention schedules. Next identify major record groups – permanent records, records required by statute or regulation, records that document the agency’s statutory mission or are subject to audit or elicit public scrutiny, and so on. Then apply appropriate controls to each grouping.
 
 

8. Assess your records management staff.

A strong records manager is critical to meeting the directive’s goals. However, records managers currently vary greatly in experience, training and skill levels. 
 
Records managers can fill one or more of these roles on the Directive Response Team:
  • Explaining federal recordkeeping to the team.
  • Translating NARA requirements into agency requirements.
  • Assisting in crafting policy and procedural solutions for electronic records management.
  • Assisting in crafting technology solutions.
  • Serving as a leader and/or champion for the records management solutions selected to address the directive’s goals.  
To achieve success, all of these roles must be filled. Currently not all records managers have the requisite, experience, training and skills to participate effectively in transitioning to electronic recordkeeping. Agencies must assess whether their current records staff has the qualifications needed to play their role(s) in addressing the goals laid out in the directive. If not, agencies will need to upgrade their staff via training, hiring or contracting.
 
 

9. Assess your current policy and records schedules.

The biggest challenges in implementing electronic recordkeeping have stemmed from poor policy foundations, not technology. Most of those who are not part of the records management community (and even some of those who are) think records management policy is set in stone. It isn’t. Federal records management principles remain, but what they mean and how to implement them effectively is often radically different today.  
 
The easiest way to simplify the management of all records – but especially electronic ones – is to clearly identify the records “containing adequate and proper documentation of the organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, and essential transactions of the agency.”  That is what agencies are required to create and preserve. An agency’s definition of record may be understood more broadly than that, but in most cases, records not required for “adequate and proper documentation” can be disposed of relatively quickly.  
 
Records schedules often contribute to the problem.  Many records schedules do not identify the specific documents needed as part of the “adequate and proper documentation.” When employees are in doubt, they tend to keep everything. Records schedules should identify specific records or categories of records to be included or excluded from the file.    
 
The bottom line? Rrecords management policy and guidance must be simple and clear.  
 
 

10. Managing permanent electronic records – manual, automated or a mix.

When most of us think of managing electronic records we think of an entirely automated solution – an electronic records management application (ERMA) engineered to accomplish specific tasks.
 
An alternative (but more manual) process would be making a specific individual or individuals responsible for electronic filing. In many agencies that is already the case with important records –records that need to be safe from change or deletion, filed so they can be located and preserved so they can be transferred to NARA as required by federal recordkeeping regulations. The only records that need to be managed to meet the directive mandate are the ones identified as permanent. 
 
An ERMA is one solution that may be appropriate for your organization, but it is not required, and for smaller agencies with more simple record-keeping and tighter budgets, it may be overkill. The challenge is finding an acceptable balance between manual intervention and automation. How much are your employees able and/or willing to do to manage their records? The more they can do, the less expensive and complex the automation component.  
 
 

11. Managing email – not all records are created equal.

We all can define a record; it’s tougher to get agreement on whether a specific email or document fits the definition. The actual question is not whether an email is a record, but whether it is necessary for “adequate and proper documentation of agency activities.”  If it is, it definitely needs to be made part of an electronic recordkeeping system. If not, I would argue that it is part of a working file (which I do consider record material) to be maintained separately from the “adequate and proper documentation” file with its own retention.  
 
Directive Target 1.2 requires managing emails in an “appropriate system  . . . for as long as they are needed.” This allows agencies considerable latitude in determining retentions for things like working files, and NARA is working on a “tiered” approach to managing email that should simplify maintenance. The guidance is due out late in 2013.
 

12. Look for outside help.

Agencies aren’t in this alone. NARA has worked hard to collect and make available products developed by federal agencies that can be adapted for use in other agencies, and under part II of the directive, the agency and its partners will provide additional guidance and tools to assist records managers in responding to the directive. 
 
Even more useful in many cases are the personal contacts that agency records officer can make attending NARA-sponsored training and events such as BRIDG meetings.  In the D.C., metro area, there is a wide range of activities where federal records managers discuss common issues. Many federal records mangers who have good solutions don’t have the time to publish their ideas, but are available at in-town professional meetings, or one of the many local training seminars, many of which are free to federal employees. These provide excellent opportunities for learning and information sharing.  Agencies should encourage their records managers, especially the less-experienced ones, to attend these activities. 
 
The transition to electronic recordkeeping will benefit everyone – agencies, the regulated community, citizens and the government as a whole. It will make government more transparent and effective. The real transition isn’t from paper to electronic. It requires a change in how people do their jobs – and that is always difficult.