I think we can all agree that this year has not started as planned.
This is especially true for government records and information managers who will now face new challenges in preserving records for posterity and public access – a key element in maintaining the strength of democracy.
As a sign of the times, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has released orientation for federal agencies on how to manage records as dramatically increased numbers of people work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
NARA has been a world leader in document management and is to be applauded for its agility and responsiveness during this time. One of his suggestions hints at a serious challenge for public sector records managers and their agencies. As a former public sector records manager, this line caught and caught my attention: “Some telecommuting employees may find that they are using personal email accounts or other email applications, such as text messages or social media messaging apps or video conferencing tools, to communicate for work.”
While I really appreciate that these are extraordinary circumstances, having people using their personal email or other email apps for work poses a significant document management risk.
NARA goes on to state that anything created using these unofficial systems must be transmitted or copied to an official system within 20 days. Controlling this is nearly impossible, and we are also asking users to take additional steps in already difficult circumstances.
Unfortunately, I think this uphill battle has only just begun.
How we got here
Truth be told, despite NARA’s best efforts, records management has been a low priority for public sector organizations for far too long. According to a survey of federal records managers AvePoint has ordered and NARA’s own investigations, agencies are still too dependent on paper records, even as they transition to electronic records. Our survey in particular showed that only 51% of agencies have completely migrated cases to a cloud application.
This is not unique to the US federal government. A friend of mine is a public sector records manager in Australia who could not work from home as all agency information was in physical format and could not be allowed to leave the offices.
An entire department would not be able to work from home as staff would have lost access to all their information. There would be no way to digitize the volume of content in the available time frame, so everyone had to keep coming every day. It’s a real challenge!
How to solve these challenges
Content is being created everywhere in repositories that may not have existed before and were deployed much earlier than expected.
Here are three tips for agencies tackling document management challenges during COVID-19:
- Invest in a cloud-based solution that will allow document managers to take care of this content. This move will allow them to deploy a very basic document management program, while saving them time to implement a more comprehensive program down the line. It may not be the ideal document management strategy, but content visibility is paramount. Document managers need to work with the IT department so they can understand what they might need to manage their documents.
- For a basic records management program, agencies need to focus on what’s important. Retention, disposal, or disposal rules don’t matter at this time. The most important thing is being able to get classification or file plan terms applied to content, which will give document managers much-needed visibility, as well as the space to go back and fix things. when there is more time. The goal is not perfection, but “control + respite”. Ultimately, agencies can impose retention and disposition rules for all that content, but for now, they just have to make sure they can manage it.
- Do all this without disturbing the end user. This is the most important recommendation. Agency employees have had enough right now without document managers asking them to perform additional tasks. Wherever possible (and it should be just about everywhere), records management processes should be implemented without end-user intervention.
Implementing something as simple as a default file plan or location-based classification terms is the easiest and most effective way to set up and run a file management program. Compliant Records. Later, document managers can investigate how more advanced automatic classification like text analysis or machine learning can also play a role.
The most important thing to understand is that it’s not too late to implement a records management program. An ounce of preventative work now will save a pound of pain later. Be sure to put Records Management in the bucket of new tasks marked as priority during this time.