President Obama this week gave government agencies four months to come up with a plan to improve records management by moving to electronic records management systems "where feasable."
In a memorandum, Obama said one aim of the plan is to improve public access to government records by moving them to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which will "provide the prism through which future generations will understand and learn from our actions and decisions."
Paul Wester, chief records officer for the U.S. Government, said in an interview with Computerworld that the president's directive is really about driving a more open government where citizens can access information in a more "Web 2.0" format.
"No one is completely electronic now, and that's one of the challenges we're driving toward with the presidential directive," Wester said. "The wider direction is about open government and transparency, being more responsive to citizens, implementing more open business operations" between agencies who can then interact with one another.
Wester said new laws and regulations may be needed to move the process of creating a more unified electronic records system forward.
But, the U.S. government does not have a good track record when it comes to developing electronic archives. Earlier this year, due to cost overruns and project mismanagement the NARA announced it was ending a 10-year effort to create an electronic records archive.
In a report released this past January ( download PDF ), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) blamed schedule delays and cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars on poor oversight and planning by the NARA. In 2005, the NARA awarded Lockheed Martin $317 million to build out the records archive.
Wester said NARA's electronic archives project was completed in September and the system is now live. It will become a central repository for all valuable and permanent electronic records for federal agencies. "The system also does a lot of workflow and work transaction support for the National Archives in maintaining control of the collections we have," he said.
Still, Obama noted that the current federal records management system is based on an outdated approach involving paper and filing cabinets, and needs to be modernized.
"Today's action will move the process into the digital age so the American public can have access to clear and accurate information about the decisions and actions of the federal government," Obama said in a statement.
Obama directed the National Archivist, David Ferriero, to coordinate with Jacob Lew, director of the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB), and Thomas Perrelli, the Associate U.S. Attorney General, to review relevant statutes, regulations, and official NARA guidance to identify opportunities for reforms that would facilitate improved government-wide records management practices, particularly with respect to electronic records.
"That piece is more along the lines of better understanding what the business needs of agencies are, what ... rights and interest issues they need to meet and what obligations they have around permanently valuable records, and then what changes in laws and policies we need to provide to agencies to help them better manage their records as well as look at technological solutions [they could use.]," Wester said.
NARA supports Obama's message about the importance of managing electronic records.
In its response to Obama's memorandum , NARA said each agency will to report to the National Archivist the name of a senior agency official who will supervise an agency-wide evaluation of its records management programs. These evaluations, which are to be completed in 120 days, are to focus on electronic records, including email and social media, as well as those programs that may be deploying or developing cloud-based services.
"Once the evaluations have been submitted, the National Archives and the OMB will have an additional 120 days to issue a Records Management Directive to agencies that will provide specific steps to reform records management policies and practices," the NARA said.
Besides streamlining records management, the effort is also aimed at saving money wasted on a records management system that is decades old.
"When records are well-managed, agencies can use them to assess the impact of programs, to reduce redundant efforts, to save money, and to share knowledge within and across their organizations. In these ways, proper records management is backbone of open Government," the memorandum said.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected] .
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