The National Archives and Records Administration is best known for preserving centuries-old documents, like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, but the agency is facing a different set of challenges in storing the government’s troves of emails and website records from the past couple decades.
“It’s interesting to think of records created 270 years ago, which were done with pen and parchment, and now they’re done with bits and bytes. They’re done electronically,” Lisa Haralampus, the director of the records management and outreach at NARA, said Wednesday during a GovExec webinar on records management.
Through the Federal Electronic Records Modernization Initiative (FERMI), which the agency launched in October 2015, NARA looks to lead agencies to make the switch from paper to digital records.
“We’ve been struggling, and striving, and succeeding, and taking a step back and two steps forward for decades when it comes to electronic records management,” Haralampus said.
“We know that records management and digital government does not get cheaper. Technology is not cheaper — it’s usually just better,” she said. “It usually decreases the burden on agency personnel who create records, but it doesn’t mean that it can be done for free.”
While agencies may not save money by switching to electronic records, NARA finds that the cost of digital storage has made the transition from paper to electronic records more affordable.
“We’ve found that the cost of storage has gone down exponentially over time,” Haralampus said. “For a while, people used to say, ‘I can’t do electronic records management because it costs too much to store.’ You don’t hear that now.”
What NARA does hear, though, is the challenge of how agencies can navigate terabytes of email records to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests.
“Being able to maintain it, being able to find it, means hiring information professionals, and the technology professionals who can say, ‘Let us do our job behind the scenes so that you can do your job in front of the scenes,'” Haralampus said.
In order to further drive down the costs of electronic records management, Haralampus urged agencies to look to shared services.
“I’d try to find a way that you could say, ‘Here is a service that is offered, that is shared across the federal government, and if you need to store social media records, I’ve got that service. This is what I charge, this is what I do, this is what you get when you come over here,” she said. “I want to make records management invisible to 99 percent of the federal employees in the federal government, that they don’t even pay attention to it. And for the 1 percent of us that are involved in information management and information governance, I want to see us be funded and creating and doing all sorts of behind-the-scenes things where we’re saving and preserving our history.”
Case in point, agencies have made considerable progress with switching their administrative records — travel records, personnel records, grant records — to digital format.
“They’ve already made, in several cases, that jump to being an entirely digital process. What we’re watching now is sort of mission records that are more specialized and have unique requirements,” Haralampus said. “I think it’s fascinating that the administrative side of the house is making the leap faster than the program side of the house, and I wonder if it’s because they’re able to leverage shared solutions.”
NARA said agency senior agency officials for records management (SAORMS) have also ensured a smoother transition to electronic records.
“That is a new position,” Haralampus said. “We’ve been able to talk to more CIOs, more CTOs, more assistant secretaries for management and administration, and try and elevate the need to think about records management, when you’re thinking, ‘What’s my agency’s strategic plan and how it’s going to succeed in its mission?’”