Federal Agencies Overspending on Records Management by 17 Percent per Year Says New Study

By Peter Bernstein March 19, 2013

A day does not go by in Washington, D.C. when somebody is not talking about the need to cut government waste and inefficiency. And, while the big budget items like defense spending and entitlements get the headlines, that dark corner of operations known as record keeping could use some  best, or even better, practices that could make life both easier for those responsible and save the public some of their hard-earned dollars even as spending is increasing to meet the incredible increase in data storage and management requirements. 

In fact, as a recent collaborative study done by MeriTalk, the government IT network, and storage and information management services company  Iron  Mountain Incorporated, found records management spending is, on average, over budget by $5 million annually representing a roughly 17 percent cost overrun. This quickly adds up to some serious money.

The Feds are under data storm just like everyone else

MeriTalk and Iron Mountain were interested in finding out the state of federal records management. Hard data came from a September 2012 survey they conducted with 100 federal records managers and 100 federal finance professionals. The results, contained in the report, Federal Records Management: Navigating the Storm, were enlightening and sobering.

The online survey, which looked into records practices, budgets, opportunities for savings, and the professionals’ views on the future, found that each federal agency spends an average of $34.4 million per year on records management, or $5 million (17 percent) more than budgeted. Plus, there appears to be no end in sight for the upward spiral. The expectation is that records management spending will more than double to $84.1 million by 2015 due to an expected 144 percent increase in records per agency over that period.

So what is driving all of this? The survey found that the blown records budgets come from:

  • Too many records – A single federal agency currently manages an average of 209 millionrecords; government-wide, agencies manage approximately 8.4 billion records.
  • Runaway information growth – The number of records per agency is expected to grow to 511million by 2015, an increase of 144 percent over current records volume.
  • Multiple information types – Agencies increasingly create records in more varied sources andformats. For example, 47 percent of all records are electronic, while 41 percent of records are created electronically but managed in a paper format.
  • A D-I-Y approach – Sixty-two percent of federal records managers use in-house systems, butthat may not be the most effective approach, as 60 percent of federal finance professionals say problems with managing records hinders agency operations.

According to the survey’s sponsors, on top of all the pressures to just keep up while being good stewards of public funds, federal agencies are also attempting to comply with the  Presidential Directive on Managing Government Records.  Enacted in August of 2012, this is a government-wide effort to reform records management policies and practices that instructs each agency to modernize its records management policies. This means making operations more efficient by digitizing records and establishing a new infrastructure that will minimize costs and promote openness and accountability. It happens to be the cornerstone of President Obama’s Open Government initiative, and hence is a priority.

“Federal record volumes will only continue to grow, driving up budgets and making it harder for agencies to manage information on their own,” said Sue Trombley, managing director of consulting for Iron Mountain. “This growth and the added pressure from the Presidential Directive are combining to make records management very complicated and unsustainable. Most agencies know they need outside help and are looking for alternatives that include the development of a strategic plan, agency-wide collaboration and training, implementing technology solutions, and policy guidance and enforcement all aimed at regaining control for today and the future.”

When asked to name solutions for their information management problems, survey respondents gave the following responsones:

  • Training (43 percent)
  • More funding (33 percent)
  • Greater support for records management from agency leadership (32 percent)

The survey authors found that just by focusing on those three factors, federal finance professionals estimate saving 24 percent of their records management budget, and records management professionals estimate the savings at 36 percent. This could mean an annual savings of $8.3 to $12.4 million per agency and between $330 million and $495 million government-wide each year.

In reviewing the findings, Iron Mountain had some strategic suggestions as to how the cost savings cited could be realized. Interestingly, while the recommendations are for the government, they apply for any large enterprise. In fact, they track almost precisely the challenges stated by the professionals themselves. They include:

  • Make it an executive priority – Bring together leaders from all functions within the agency,including IT, finance, operations, legal/compliance, and security to help create, implement and enforce a culture of records and information management compliance.
  • Invest in training – Regular training and education creates a culture of accountability andresponsibility for records management, helping to ensure that employees are invested.
  • Smart digitization & timely destruction – A common mistake when converting paper records toan electronic format is to scan (then save) everything; instead, agencies should consider what records they have, who needs them, for what purpose and for how long, then digitize those records first and destroy older inactive records no longer needed for compliance or business reasons.
  • Where possible, streamline – Choose process to standardize on for the entire agency, asrecords management programs have a better chance of success if there is agreement on common policies/practices and schedules for addressing access, retention and other processes.

The last two items are common sense. It is the first two that seem to be the ones that are most difficult to solve whether an organization is a government agency, private enterprise or a not-for-profit one. First, the reality is that IT operations may be seen as operational support issues the fact is they are strategic to the mission and goals of organizations and cross-organizational buy-in is a key to success. IT can make policies and rules but without the culture change recommended good intentions can become bad practices when not followed universally and consistently. Second, whether it pertains to record keeping, security or a host of other activities, training (including getting qualified training staff) is critical. It also happens to be an area where government agencies unfortunately tend to spend little time on. Most errors in document handling after all at the end of the day are human errors.

Will the U.S. federal agencies be able to get the record keeping challenges under control, particularly in light of the Directive? Given all of the uncertainties around sequestration, it is problematic to have a bright outlook that the results of a similar survey next year will look different. However, since record digitization and business process automation are administration priorities in terms of helping reduce the deficit long-term, one can always hope. 

Edited by Rachel Ramsey
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