The pandemic is testing the management of electronic records

As the Office of Management and Budget’s M-19-21 deadline approaches for federal agencies to transition to fully electronic records management (ERM), GCN’s sister site FCW has assembled a group of managers records management and other stakeholders to see how their efforts are progressing, especially in light of the challenges introduced by the pandemic. The discussion was recorded but not for individual attribution (see box for list of participants), and quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Here’s what the band had to say.


Brett Abrams
Electronic Records Archivist, National Archives and Records Administration

Walter Bohorfoush
Director, Records Management Office, Department of Transportation

Laurence Brewer
Chief Records Officer, National Archives and Records Administration

David Brown
Archivist, Office of Records Management Services, Office of Support Operations, Securities and Exchange Commission

Edward Horton
Senior Advisor, Facility Construction and Operation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of Commerce

Ratima Kataria
Assistant IT Director, Health Resources and Services Administration, Department of Health and Human Services

John Mancini
President, Content Results LLC

Mark Patrick
Chief, Information Management Team, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ministry of Defense

Jeanette Plante
Director of Policy, Office of Records Management, Department of Justice

david simmons
Senior Records Officer, General Services Administration

Scott Swidersky
Vice President of Enterprise Content Management, Konica Minolta Business Solutions USA Inc., and President, Quality Associates Inc.

Bob Valente
Project Manager, Office Management Category, General Services Administration

Note: FCW Editor-in-Chief Troy K. Schneider moderated the roundtable. The December 10, 2020 meeting was underwritten by Quality Associates Inc., but the substance of the discussion and summary on these pages are strictly editorial products. Neither QAI nor any of the roundtable participants had any comments other than their December 10 comments.

Once the workforce moved away, agencies rushed to enable greater virtual collaboration, adding new hurdles to ERM. “We had a good rollout planned for Teams, and records management was being integrated into the whole process,” a manager said. “All of a sudden it was thrown out the window as Teams was immediately made available to everyone when they returned home in March.”

Another manager echoed those comments, saying: “The deployment of our teams was rapid and poorly planned. It kind of filled the void, but it was initially stated that it was not of a record platform, and everyone in the agency who uses that platform has to drag anything of value that they want to keep as a record into their own system.”

The first official predicted that rapid deployments would be the norm. “Documents management will be part of that rollout, but we’ll have to find the gaps and fill them as we go down the road of rolling these things out.”

The year-long emphasis on maximum telework and new priorities brought about by COVID-19 have hampered some efforts to comply with memorandum M-19-21, particularly for agencies that s strive to digitize vast archives of paper documents on site. For the most part, however, participants said the pandemic has accelerated agencies’ adoption of digital tools that will facilitate ERM.

One official said agencies would not return to paper-based processes, while another noted that “since March people have stopped asking for paper. So I guess they’re still doing the same job, they find just the information somewhere else.”

The downside could be an increase in electronic records. Collaboration tools that were tested in small pilot projects or still on the drawing board are now in constant use, noted one participant. “It generates a whole new source of information – like this [roundtable] meeting being recorded.”

At least one participant was skeptical that agencies wouldn’t simply revert to old ways when public health precautions allowed. “I wonder how we can measure success against that until we come back and re-engage face-to-face and see what’s left of that culture,” the manager said.

Another expressed concern that budgets could be further squeezed by all the new priorities brought about by the pandemic, which could make it impossible to meet M-19-21 deadlines.

“I think we need an extension,” but not because of COVID-19, the official said. “We need an extension because, more and more, we understand the complexities of moving forward.”

Several participants said pushing for better metadata was the top priority in 2021. M-19-21 asked agencies to have their records in electronic form “to the greatest extent possible” by the end of 2019 , while the 2022 deadline is for maintaining “all permanent records in an electronic format and with appropriate metadata.”

“I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two months going through our holdings to sort out what needs to be digitized and where we need more metadata,” an official said. “It’s about the various mission-specific metatag fields as well as all the attributes that [the National Archives and Records Administration] look for.”

A particular challenge for another public servant is bringing document management to systems built around datasets rather than documents. “What used to be collected in forms is now being put into databases and reconfigured for reporting and trending and approval and all that stuff,” the manager said. “We need to think even further upstream not only about the data that is captured in these systems, but also who is designing these systems to solve the problems. And that pushes records management into this information governance of asking: why are we designing this? »

This brings ERM into the realm usually handled by CIOs, CTOs and now data managers, the official added. “So we’re working with them through their IT processes. But I’m comfortable with where we are.”

A longer version of this article was first published on FCW, a sister site of GCN.