With 'D-Day' Approaching Half of U.S. Federal Agencies Not Confident They Can Meet Deadlines for Improving Records Management

By Peter Bernstein December 16, 2013

It seems that hardly a day goes by without the U.S. government facing some kind of deadline. The funding of the government and budget ones come to mind and make all the headlines, but there are others. In fact, there is one coming up on December 31 of this year (as in just a few days) that is more than a little noteworthy. You see that is the day under the August 24 2012, Presidential Directive on Managing Government Records, that federal agencies are required to identify all permanent records in existence for more than 30 years, as well as report on progress toward managing those records in electronic format. It appears they are not going to make it.

A new study by MeriTalk, a public-private partnership focused on improving the outcomes of government, “Federal Records and Information Management: Ready to Rumble?”, paints the picture.

As the authors state, “Almost half (46 percent) of Federal agency records and information management professionals do not believe, or are unsure if, the requirements are realistic and obtainable.  

“The Presidential Directive – in combination with Sequestration, the ‘Freeze the Footprint’ mandate, FOIA, Open Government, and other information-centric actions like the Open Data Policy – have Federal agencies at an information management tipping point”

The study, underwritten by storage and information management company Iron Mountain, was done online involving 100 Federal government records and information management professionals in October 2013.  It asked directly the view of those involved their agency’s likelihood of meeting the Presidential Directive deadlines. The survey found that three out of four Federal agency records and information management professionals believe the Presidential Directive on Managing Government Records will achieve its mission of enabling modern, high quality records and information management. However, study respondents indicated that better-trained records management personnel (53 percent) and dedicated funding (51 percent) would most help them to meet the Presidential Directive deadlines.

The Presidential Directive goal is noble. It aims to transform Federal records management by requiring agencies to transition to electronic recordkeeping for all permanent records by 2019 and comply with various statutes and regulations. While 55 percent of the survey respondents believe the Directive will improve compliance, the problem is getting from here to there. 

In regards to the looming deadline:

  • 54 percent of records and information managers say they will be able to identify all permanent records by Dec. 31.
  • 70 percent of respondents say they have very little progress to report, and just 18 percent say they have made significant progress and are ready to report today.
  • 92 percent say their agency must take further steps to meet the Directive requirements.

Unfortunately, as current problems with government digital activities have shown, this result is depressing but not unexpected.  Even the longer-term outlook is sobering.  Survey respondents believe that successful compliance with the Directive will deliver additional benefits. These include: improving accessibility in records search (50 percent); increasing the overall efficiency of agency operations (45 percent); making search, eDiscovery, and Freedom of Information Act response practices easier (38 percent); increasing government transparency (33 percent); and decreasing the cost of records and information management (33 percent).

“The Presidential Directive – in combination with Sequestration, the ‘Freeze the Footprint’ mandate, FOIA, Open Government, and other information-centric actions like the Open Data Policy – have Federal agencies at an information management tipping point,” said Megan Kriebel, general manager, Government Services, Iron Mountain. “Agencies are trying to balance ever-expanding record volumes with flat or shrinking budgets, all while racing to meet mandates that require a fundamental shift in how they store, access, and manage records and information. Agencies can more easily meet the Directive deadlines and find cost savings by carefully reviewing records management practices, engaging agency leaders, and working with industry partners.”

Meritalk point out that the call for more training and budget mirrors two previous surveys, a March 2013 MeriTalk/Iron Mountain report, “Federal Records Management: Navigating the Storm”, and a survey Iron Mountain conducted in advance of the adoption of the Presidential Directive in July 2012.

Given the revelations in the continuing N.S.A. scandal, cynics would say that it might not be such a bad thing that the digitization of vital records is not progressing fast enough.  However, the fact of the matter is that digitization is important for the preservation of the information for both historical and fact checking reasons, and because the cost of automation are more than exceeded by the benefits of getting rid of all that paper and the time required for processing it.

In terms of the allocation of public money and the priorities of the government, providing government document management professionals the resources they need may not be near the top of the list.  This would be an oversight and another case where short term pain is worth it to get the long term gain. Whether Congress and the Obama administration can see eye-to-eye on this is problematic at best.  And, while this version of “D-Day” is likely to go unnoticed by most of those in Washington, especially since the stick for not meeting the deadline appears to be a (pardon the pun) “paper tiger”, the report should serve as wake up call. That said, its translation into a call for action seems wishful thinking at best.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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