A joint memo between the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) calls on agencies to move toward a “paperless government” by the end of the year; however, unforeseen challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed progress and led to agencies discussing a possible extension for the quickly approaching December 2022 deadline.
“December 2022 is not the end of the world. What we've always been concerned about at the National Archives is progress,” said Chief Records Officer Laurence Brewer during Digital Government Institute’s 930gov conference Tuesday. “We asked agencies to create maturity models. We want to see agencies improving, addressing challenges, mitigating risks and getting to a higher level of maturity. We're going to keep working on managing electronic records and trying to get to that environment where we're fully electronic and realizing the vision of 'zero click' records management.”
The COVID-19 pandemic presented new challenges to NARA’s digital government journey, including barriers with digitization, closed records facilities and transferring paper records with limited service, which has slowed the anticipated transformation timeline outlined in memo M-19-21.
Although NARA cannot independently change the target dates, the agency is collaborating with OMB to develop next steps and consider new extensions.
"This is the argument, in my conversations and discussions with OMB, we've been trying to communicate — what we're hearing, what are the issues and challenges that agencies are facing — to try and justify an extension of the targets that will give agencies some time to get back into the buildings ramp up progress, and really start focusing on the goals,” Brewer said. “That said, I can't tell you what the new targets are going to be. It's something that's still in process.”
In addition to the pandemic, agencies have also faced challenges with resources, including budget, staffing, technology and governance, to effectively implement electronic records management. NARA is collaborating with industry to help bring new tools to agencies that support and manage evolving forms of records, like text messages.
NARA plans to collaborate with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to build out skillsets for records management and staff, so the next generation of managers and archivists are positioned for success. Change management will also play a key role in implementing a digital government, focusing on the culture of the existing workforce.
“Anything that's involved with change management, it's turning a battleship around; it takes time. We are hearing loud and clear that agencies and records managers in these agencies are doing what they can really push where we need to be with this transition, but there's still that resistance, which many agencies are still encountering,” Brewer said.
As NARA and OMB continue to evaluate the memo, Brewer said there needs to be a balance between policy and technology. Moving forward, NARA and OMB will continue to build upon M-19-21 in a way that anticipates changes in the record-keeping environment, focusing on transparency and minimal end user intervention for the future of records management.
“The guidance can only be issued and evolve at a pace that technology can support,” Brewer said. “We’re always looking at emerging technologies. How do we get to 'zero click?' How do we leverage emerging technologies like artificial intelligence? And we want to write guidance that will help agencies get there, but we also have to be aware the technologies and the tools agencies have at their disposal to make sure that they can implement guidance effectively.”
Looking ahead, NARA plans to develop and iterate its strategies to include additional factors like digitization standards and data transparency.
“It is all about electronic records management, and ultimately, there are strategies that are designed to get us closer to that vision of 'zero click' or transparent records management,” Brewer said. “There are things out there related to websites, social media records, collaborative platforms ... that we want to focus on in terms of guidance and be able to strike that balance of issuing guidance that technology can support and that agencies can implement.”