In an update to its guidance on records retention, NARA – the National Archives and Records Administration – has directed agencies to retain texts, emojis, instant messages, and GIFs in addition to the other electronic and paper records they have historically kept. The guidance, the first update to records retention since 2013, requires the preservation of communications about government business on electronic messaging systems that “allow users to send communications in real-time or for later viewing.”
While the retention of these electronic messages is vital given the changing patterns of communication, the guidance from NARA isn’t without its complications and challenges. As well as adding to the overall volume of data that must be retained, the addition of these newer forms of communication adds both cost and complexity, particularly when it comes to the safety and security of the records. “NARA already has over 4 million cubic feet of hard copy records in its 18 Federal Records Centers,” shared Sonia Mundra, President of Chenega Analytic Business Solutions. “Couple that with the records that are held by each individual agency and then add in these new requirements, and it’s easy to ascertain that the cost of maintaining records is a primary driver of the government’s desire to digitize.”
It’s not only the directive to retain more electronic records, or the hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours invested in federal records retention that is driving change, it’s also the need to secure and protect these essential records. While cyberattacks on stored data are not unheard of, with robust Zero Trust defenses as outlined in the May 2021 Executive Order on Cybersecurity, digital records are easier to secure. “What is often forgotten in the digital age, is that physical risk and security challenges persist,” explained Mundra. “Paper records require dedicated resources, management attention, and investments to protect from both man-made and natural disasters that would result in fire or water damage. The time and resources spent in ensuring documents are physically preserved could be applied to more effectively managing electronic records.”
But change is never simple. “While government agencies understand that a government-wide, modern, cost-effective, standardized, and interoperable set of records management solutions and services is beneficial, its implementation creates its own set of burdens,” explained Mundra. “From inaccuracies when the original data source is digitized to securing the data, to future-proofing the accessibility of digital records, there are myriad challenges.”
Mundra doesn’t want NARA and other records management teams to become disheartened, though, particularly on the subject of future-proofing the accessibility of digital records. Sharing her recent experiences working with agencies, Mundra noted two particular challenges. “The first is ensuring long-term integrity of digitized records,” she shared. “It does no good to convert paper documents into an electronic database if they become unusable or burdensome to retrieve after conversion.” To mitigate this challenge Mundra advises agencies to choose solutions that embrace Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and produce searchable records, but also to focus on creating meaningful metadata tags so that database searches yield optimum results.
The other challenge that agencies face based on Mundra’s experience is re-engineering older solutions. “Remember microfiche?” Mundra quipped. “Those sheets of flat film need to be converted into a digital format today. Microfiche sheets were once a state-of-the-art solution but are now obsolete. No federal agency wants to repeat that costly mistake.” To avoid investing in tomorrow’s legacy solution Mundra advises agencies to take an enterprise-level view of records management and ensure no stove-piped solutions are incorporated that would compromise the ability to manage digital assets across systems and platforms.
With the 2024 deadline for federal agencies to move to a fully electronic environment – where appropriate – rapidly approaching there’s still much work to be done. From the centralization of paper and other analog records to Federal Records Centers operated by NARA to the core work of digitization and the new requirement to retain texts, instant messages, emojis, and gifs, records management teams across the federal government will have their hands full. But Mundra wants to remind these teams that they’re not alone. “As our federal government catches up with the speed of technology, it’s the role of industry partners to advise and guide,” she concluded. “We want to make sure that the records of our country are accessible to the people who need them, and secure against the people who don’t.”
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