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More agencies moving paper records into the digital realm

Mar. 8, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By AL KARR   |   Comments
The Government Printing Office has been making an efforts to digitize records, like Library of Congress Congressional documents. Congress has pushed agencies to autromate records.
The Government Printing Office has been making an efforts to digitize records, like Library of Congress Congressional documents. Congress has pushed agencies to autromate records. (Army Times)

The Veterans Affairs Department has stepped up its efforts to automate veterans' disability claims records and give vets electronic access to their health data. It now boasts more than 185,000 persons who download their health records through VA's Blue Button, a capability that didn't exist a year ago.

What's more, VA is working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Defense Department to make Blue Button technology available to all 8 million of these agencies' health plan beneficiaries.

VA also began four years ago to convert its massive collection of paper personnel records to a new eOPF electronic Official Personnel Folder making records available to employees 24/7 from nearly all of its 140 locations.

What the effort reflects, VA's employee magazine, Vanguard, said in a recent issue, is that "in the federal government, records and files are important. If they are not available, things don't get done."

The eOPF is part of the Office of Personnel Management's Enterprise Human Resources Integration initiative, which plans to use eOPFs to maintain records for 1.8 million executive branch employees. At VA, if an employee needs a copy of his SF 50 (Notification of Personnel Action), for instance, he just logs into eOPF. There's no need to make an appointment or wait in line for human resources help.

The electronic folders also save time and money, and are more secure and accurate than paper files, said Julie Young, a VA human resources specialist.

Moving from paper to digitized records began slowly, but "once we started rolling, we converted about 300,000 records in a little over a year," said Bob Baratta, program director in the VA's HR line of business office. Paper files for employees with 30 or 40 years on the job were bulging. Some 34 million pages were scanned into digitized form.

VA's records automation drive typifies what has been going on with growing intensity among federal agencies in the last few years: a full-scale move to automated records from paper files.

There is an increasing expectation from citizens and employees that "the function of government ... can be managed online," said Paul Wester, modern records manager for the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), which oversees records management by all federal agencies.

"Information is exploding at such a crazy [pace] that it is ridiculous to think of keeping records without automation," said Craig Rhinehart, director of products and strategy for IBM's enterprise content management division.

However, despite the cost savings and efficiencies of electronic records and the credibility electronic documents provide in case of media or other criticism most agencies have a long way to go in their transition to automation, Rhinehart and other vendor officials say.

To push that effort along, the administration and Congress have put mandates in place. The Office of Management and Budget, for example, has set a 2013 deadline for agency retirement records to be automated. Congress has pushed agencies into automated records, including the 2002 eGovernment Act. As part of its emphasis on an open and transparent government, the Obama administration requires agencies to post three series of "high value" records on their websites.

Success stories

NARA recognizes innovations in electronic and other recordkeeping, last year citing the Interior, State and Treasury departments and the FBI for outstanding programs. Among other agency successes:

The Government Printing Office and Library of Congress will jointly digitize public and private laws and proposed constitutional amendments from 1951 to 2002 and Congressional Record debates from 1873 to 1998. They will also provide enhanced online public access to a Senate document that analyzes Constitution-related Supreme Court cases. New features will offer easier authentication and searching.

The Environmental Protection Agency has made progress in automating HR, financial and other records, said information collection director Andrew Battin. Five years ago, records were trucked from location to location; now, they're available electronically. Data searches previously involved poring through paper folders; now employees create and search electronic records.

The Defense Department, at the forefront of automation, follows a standard for testing vendors' software programs to ensure that they meet four conditions: They must support record identification and capture, including metadata tagging; and they must be able to properly store and protect records, to find and retrieve data efficiently, and to dispose of old records according to schedules approved by NARA. NARA has endorsed the DoD standard for use by other agencies.

Paper records were previously handled by file clerks, but now, everyone has to have some semblance of [electronic] records knowledge, because anything they do [online] might be a record," said Ron Kelly, DoD deputy director for enterprise services and integration.

The Navy in the past few years has had paper records used by 400,000 shore-based personnel scanned and digitized, 3.6 billion records, 42 unique data sets, 3.5 terabytes ranging from the Navy secretary's e-mails to records from the Navy's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and its work in helping cope with the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year. The goal now is to extend the Electronic Records Management System to another 350,000 personnel on ships and submarines and overseas in the next year or two, said records manager Charley Barth.

Arlington National Cemetery, overseen by the Army and under fire for poorly marked graves, has improved its digitized records system, including creating a searchable database for interment records. Transforming the recordkeeping process into an automated system will ensure greater effectiveness and accountability, said Dave Foster, an Army spokesman.

Official personnel folders at CMS, the Energy Department and the Social Security Administration are all electronic now. SSA's payroll provider, the Interior Department, is testing technical compliance to be sure that retirement data submitted to OPM meets OPM specifications.

The Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services has mostly redesigned its workflow. This comes following a 2009 inspector general report that said the office was moving too fast on records automation because it hadn't redesigned its paper-files-oriented business processes used to adjudicate immigration applications. Now, CIS has digitized 920,000 of its 70 million active files at scanning locations in Kentucky and Missouri.

"It's a slow process because of the volume," said Christopher Bentley, CIS press secretary. But conversion should be complete by the end of 2014, he said.

Challenges ahead

All agencies face some substantial challenges that must be met for records automation to succeed.

"Electronic records are challenging to manage, especially as electronic information is being created in volumes that pose a significant technical challenge to the ability to organize and make it accessible," the Government Accountability Office said in June.

Many agencies cite funding or staffing shortfalls. Others say that modernizing and simplifying business processes is crucial before automation begins, to avoid the problem that CIS ran into.

"I would suggest to other agencies that before they embark on electronic records automation, they step back and see how to simplify" all of their paper recordkeeping procedures, said Catherine Teti, knowledge services director for GAO.

"Old practices can really hinder the move to electronic recordkeeping," EPA's Battin added.

Probably the most important element of automation success is the agency culture getting top managers, and everyone in the ranks, to buy into the digitizing idea, GAO and other agency officials say. "The automation part of it is crucial, but it's the last thing," said Peter Levin, chief technology officer at VA. "You don't stop talking about culture, or about business process."

It's crucial to get information technology and records management people to work together because a good marriage of technology and content is imperative, automation advocates say. One important task is to persuade content-minded employees that security is in place. HR officers had to be convinced that their records were safe while they were being shipped for scanning, said VA's Baratta.

Finally, sustaining a records automation program is a must. It's best to select a "vanilla" system format that will be continue to be workable for 10 or 15 or 30 years because technology keeps changing and more specialized formats may not be usable that long, said Arian Ravanbakhsh, electronic records policy specialist at NARA.

But finding the right approach isn't easy.

"We have yet to find the best of breed the tool that comes off the shelf," said EPA's Battin.

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