Agencies puzzled by records management in the digital age

Agencies are facing an uphill battle as they try to adapt to records management practices in the digital age.

Are the average federal employee’s emails worthy of federal record? What about a business call on Skype?

Questions like these have the officials responsible for agencies’ records management puzzled as the federal government shifts to a more digital enterprise inundated with new forms of data.

A bevy of federal IT officials and records managers gathered Tuesday at Iron Mountain’s Future of Information Forum produced by FedScoop to discuss the evolution of records management and the challenges they face in the digital age.

At the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Wolf Tombe, chief technology officer, said he’s facing an uphill battle with an ocean of data from systems that in some cases are decades old.


“How do we manage that?” Tombe asked, estimating that in the near future every person in the world will have an average of 5,000 gigabytes of data corresponding to them. “Where do we store it? How do we log it and search it? Those are enormous questions we’re all going to have to face.”

Much of that new data comes in new forms. While many of the laws for records management are built around the storage of paper and simple text files, the development and reliance upon new forms of communications — email, text messaging, video calls and social media, to name a few — makes record keeping a bit more murky.

In 2013, the National Archives and Records Administration introduced its Capstone guidance for agencies to manage email correspondence. But Nancy Hunn, director of records and privacy with the Government Accountability Office, said only a small percentage of emails are worthy of logging — nearly 80 percent are “superfluous.”

“So you’re spending an inordinate amount of time hand-wringing and worrying about email when you’re really talking about 20 percent — the 5 percent that are actually record-worthy and the 15 percent that are actually works in progress.” She said GAO archives the emails of senior executives, executive committees and their deputies with NARA.

That archiving is no small task, and many officials like Hunn are calling for tools to make it more automatic. “We need a new paradigm in records management getting away form the whole file folder scenario and getting into auto-categorization,” she said of new technologies, which in many cases are “at least 90 percent effective” in archiving the proper email files for records.


But the reality is in most places there aren’t automated tools for archiving — usually that’s left up to the end user. Tim Crawford, a program manager at the Environmental Protection Agency, said one of his biggest challenges is inspiring workers to “take responsibility for their role in record creation.”

“We have to, as a business process, have individuals responsible for those records,” Wardman said. “That’s the key piece — it’s up to the individual to make the determination on whether the stuff they work with is a record or not.”

Labor Department Chief Information Officer Dawn Leaf said that email could be just the beginning of this new influx of records. In migrating Labor’s nine legacy email systems to Microsoft 365’s cloud email in 2014, this added various collaboration tools that her employees loved to use, like instant messaging and Skype for Business.

“Are those interactions records?” Leaf questioned. She said it’s a question that varies for every agency depending on their policies, and at Labor, a “bargaining unit position” in her department “says we will not record things like that.”

Likewise, Leaf said, Labor enforcement agents are driving the need for even more types of records to manage.


“They want to use mobile devices in the field,” she said. “They don’t want to just capture information as we have traditionally in our brick-and-mortar systems. They want to take videos, they want to capture audio, they want to do images. And quite frankly, the Department of Labor is not set up for that.” Later in the day, Hunn would point similarly to wearables in generating data that may at some point in time need to be filed and recorded.

And as agencies like Leaf’s try to catch up to the current expanding environment for managing data and records, they’re tasked with envisioning the future of those systems, which in many cases outlive their creators.

Tombe said some treaties require CBP to keep records for up to 75 years, a technology lifespan that he said is impossible to plan for.

“Future-proofing 70 years out in terms of technology is a really interesting job,” he said. The solution will be “completely different than I could ever have thought about. I can guarantee that. What that is, I have no idea, but I’m looking forward to seeing it while I’m around.”

He added: “Seventy years in IT — that’s like 1,000 years in regular life.”

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