NARA seeks industry help to automate records management

On the morning of Tuesday September 10 the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) hosted an event at which the vendor community were able to listen to NARA explain their core attitudes and beliefs about automation and records management.   NARA used the morning to invite vendors to submit information about their existing products, as well as ideas and suggestions for viable automated solutions.

Meg Phillips is External Affairs Liaison at the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and she gave an introductory speech setting the goals and context for the event.

Here are the main points I noted from the speech:

  • Many federal agencies are still using ‘paper-inspired’ records management processes.
    The bigger agencies are finding such processes hard to scale
  • Federal agencies have relied heavily on electronic records management applications certified against standard DoD 5015.2.   NARA still believes that this is a viable approach.
    However the problem is that the penetration of these systems is not very deep.  Even when agencies have implemented such electronic records management systems, there are still considerable quantities of information that are falling outside the scope of the electronic records management systems and that are going unmanaged
  • NARA believes that with types of electronic records such as e-mail and social media there may be other ways of managing them that will work just as well or better than the electronic records management system approach
  • NARA is working on the assumption that automation can improve the consistency of records management outcomes, and reduce the burden on end users
  • NARA are looking to ‘change the conversation’ about records management.  In particular they are looking for more consistent and more compliant record keeping in federal agencies
  • NARA believes that the consistency and compliance of record keeping is directly linked to the burden on end users.  If an Agency  imposes a significant burden on busy staff by asking them to make decisions on every individual e-mail that they receive (should it be treated as a record? if it does need to be treated as a record how should it be filed/categorised?)  then this is likely to have a negative impact on consistency and compliance
  • NARA believes that automating records management decisions to the maximum extent possible will lead to greater consistency and compliance, will result in better records, and more accessible records
  • NARA are looking for solutions that will both scale up to the needs of big agencies but would also scale down and be affordable for smaller agencies with small IT budgets
  • NARA will start by establishing the state of the market in terms of what products are already out there for automating records management processes.
    This would enable NARA both to increase awareness within federal government of what is already available,  and to identify any market needs that need to be addressed
  • NARA wants to identify solutions that can automate records management processes, including auto-classification,  and innovative approaches coming out of the e-discovery vendor community
  • NARA does not assume that open source is the only way to go, but it is one avenue that they need to explore
  • NARA actively supports the automation of RM tasks.  They believe this may be the only truly scaleable way to consistently and compliantly manage electronic records in high volume environments
  • NARA believes this is a sea-change.  They will actively support agencies who are willing to innovate and try approaches that are not yet tried and tested
  • There will be no obligation on Agencies to introduce automated records management processes
  • As well as reducing the records management burden on individuals, NARA are also looking to ease the passage of electronic records through their lifecycle, by looking at tackling ‘moments of risk’ in the life of records.  One of these moments of risk is when records transit from one application to another.  NARA wants to find ways of making the movement of records from one system to another less onerous and risky
  • NARA are looking to standardise the way electronic records of permanent value are transferred to them from Federal Agencies.  NARA has a digital repository, which accepts ‘submission information packages’  (the term used in the OAIS model for a new accession of records to the repository).  NARA will draw up a standard for how such submission information packages should be put together

You can see a video recording of the whole speech on the NARA usenet site (Meg’s speech starts 13 minutes into video number 1).

Background to the event

NARA’s call to industry comes in the context of the  ‘ Managing Government Records Directive
issued in August 2012,  which sets two central goals to  US Federal Government .   One of the goals commits Federal Agencies to manage records in a manner consistent with Federal statutes and regulations and professional standards.   The other goal states that:

  • all e-mail must be managed electronically  by 31 December 2016
  • all permanently valuable electronic records must be managed electronically by end 2019

The goals  themselves are neither particularly interesting nor at first sight, particularly demanding.
What is interesting is the manner in which NARA  is committed to achieve it.  The Directive commits NARA , among other things to:

  • issue new advice on the management of e-mail  (this prompted NARA’s Capstone advice that I blogged about recently)
  • investigate the embedding of records management into commercial cloud services
  • investigate the feasibility of establishing central cloud service for the management of unclassified cloud records
  • investigate the possibilities for reducing the burden of records management on agencies through automation
  • revise its guidance on the transfer of electronic records to the National Archives to ensure it stays current with technology trends.

NARA are committed to reporting by 31 December 2013, on the two commitments relating to the cloud, and the commitment relating to automation.

Sub-goal A3 of the directive commits NARA to  ‘investigate and stimulate applied research in automated technologies to reduce the burden of records management responsibilities’.   In particular it commits NARA to:

  • work with private industry and other stakeholder to produce economically viable automated records management solutions
  • produce, by December 31, 2013,  a comprehensive plan to describe suitable approaches for the automated management of e-mail, social media and other types of digital records content
  • obtain, by December 31 2014, external involvement for the development of open source records management solutions


NARA have published a blogpost about the event.    Cheryl McKinnon attended the event and posted this blogpost 

4 thoughts on “NARA seeks industry help to automate records management

  1. This ‘presentation’, like others in the recent past from NARA are a cause to chuckle a bit. Many of us who have been shouldering the burden of managing records in the Federal environs have offered up these (or similar) suggestions for over a decade REPEATEDLY to NARA as what needs to happen to move RM forward and improve the manner in which records are being created, captured, managed and handled for the long term. Now all of the sudden, NARA announces this as a “path forward” as if they pulled it out of thin air!
    The biggest chanllenges Agencies have faced in th e past decade is NARA’s unwillingness to bow from their position in 36CFR, even when they re-wrote it last, they insisted on adding references to ISO 15489, an INTERNATIONAL “standard’ that was issued in 2001 and hasn’t been updated which ARMA tried for 5 years to get ANSI to adopt and they refused it- mainly because it was too cumbersome and lacked necessary specificity to be of value across a range of industry segments, many of which had practices that were “the same but different”due to regulations they are required to follow (finance, medical, education, utilities, manufacturing, legal… all with different requirements that make a common set of practices useless).
    It’s great to say “automate things” but someone has to build the rules and tables for retention by record series, then identify the series to ensure the proper rule is applied… and if the records belong to someone in a “Senior role”, well, the rule is the same, but different- it’s Permanent.

  2. Agree, Larry, with nearly everything you say. I also know that in some agency responses to NARA on the Nov. 2011 Presidential Memo that led to the Aug. 2012 Directive suggested (no, “begged”) that they address the outdated and insufficient DoD 5015.2 standard, which they continue to “endorse”. As you know, this was not done, and the directive still leaves agencies hanging on how to meet the regulatory requirements to properly manage electronic records that are born digital and live their entire life cycles in various mission and LOB IT systems.

    Leadership and guidance from NARA is sorely needed on this to accomplish the major goals of the new Directive. James’ summary (bullet two of Meg Phillips’ speech) indicates that NARA is still believes this is “a viable approach”, although acknowledging that it leaves “considerable quantities of information that are falling outside the scope of the electronic records management systems and that are going unmanaged.” DUH, Is it not obvious yet that all, or even most” official records of large federal agencies will never be duplicated or migrated from the multitude of operational mission supporting systems into a massive central repository that is equipped with or designed to perform all required records management functions

    IMO, this can only be solved by formal established of a workable standard/specification that directs and guides our vendors and internal IT systems designers/developers to bake this RM functionality into every system that is create and house Official Records. While industry input and partnership is essential to this standard setting process. I for one really hope that NARA is not thinking this can be left entirely to the ECM/ERM vendors to solve under sub-goal A3 calling on industry ” to produce economically viable automated records management solutions.”

    1. Hi Ron, hi Larry
      I would be interested to hear what NARA thinks of the European MoReq2010 specification, because that was written with the aim of having a specification that any business application could, at least in theory, be built to comply with.

      So far its influence on the market has been limited to SharePoint plug-in/extenders, but if the US got interested in it and extended MoReq2010 to fit US requirements it would be a different proposition to the market

  3. Sorry: in my exuberance and haste to post, I forgot to edit for grammar. Let me restate my main point —

    IMO, this can only be solved by formal establishment of a workable standard/specification that directs and guides our vendors and internal IT systems designers/developers to bake RM functionality into systems that create and house Official Records.

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