When it comes to records management, automation is not a mandate. However, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) requires that by 2019 agencies manage all permanent electronic records in native electronic format, and by 2022 they submit all records, paper or electronic, in digital format.

The good news is agencies are not on their own. As the primary authority on federal records management, NARA has been providing agencies with guidance on how to achieve records management mandates, and, the benefits of automation have been a consistently recurring theme in NARA guidance documents.

NARA guidance

One of the latest documents drafted by NARA is the “Use Cases for Electronic Messages,” which provides guidance on selecting commercial solutions and services. In this document, NARA repeatedly emphasizes the benefits of automation, and agencies would do well to take note of the benefits that NARA highlights.

NARA has a history of actively promoting the benefits of automation when it comes to managing information lifecycles. In its official “Automated Electronic Records Management Report/Plan,” released in 2014, NARA states, “automating records management will not only reduce the burden of records management responsibilities on individuals, but will make federal government records and information easier to access because they are more consistently managed.”

A point well taken. Many agencies find it burdensome to manage their electronic records, especially if that means touching individual files and making a separate record-keeping decision about each one. As a result, without automation, employees are busier with records and have less time to devote to more mission-centric tasks. Apart from this resource drain, relying on busy end-users potentially leads to inconsistent capture of electronic records, risk of human error, and carries an inability to scale up to higher volumes.

On the other hand, with automated records management capabilities, agency records are more accurately captured and consistently managed, and therefore more accessible for support of the agency mission. Processes can be scaled up to handle a higher volume of information, which is a vital necessity as the volume of generated information continues to grow.

It’s one thing to advocate for automation at a high level, but quite another to implement detailed and specific automation capabilities that match agency needs.

Implementing automation

By Dec. 31, 2019, agencies will need to manage all permanent electronic records in an electronic format. To date, most agencies have implemented, or at least established plans for storing email records in an electronic format. Unfortunately, a successful strategy for email does not necessarily guarantee a successful strategy for all electronic records, e.g., text messages. And some agencies might not be ready to adopt automation across the board.

NARA acknowledges this in its Use Cases guidance. “The steps through the life cycle can be done automatically, semi-automatically or manually. While NARA would like to see agencies move toward full automation, agencies may not be in the position to do this due to limited resources or other constraints,” the document states.

NARA brings a realistic perspective to its work, discussing the benefits of automation, while also recognizing its difficulties. Agencies will benefit more if NARA actively incorporated automation recommendations into future electronic records modernization guidance.

NARA took steps in that direction in its 2014 plan, but the e-records environment has evolved significantly since then, and the issue is more pressing than ever. Including more concrete recommendations on automation in future guidance and policy could help to accelerate the adoption of automated records management tools across the government, significantly increasing the public sector’s ability to gain a higher return on information.

Of course, automation requires a solid records management framework as its foundation, and not all agencies are there yet. By being more proactive in promoting automation in records guidance, NARA would keep the technology at the forefront of agencies’ minds. This is important, as it encourages agencies to approach records modernization with a long-term mentality — establishing a plan and foundation that will help them not only meet the next deadline, but continue to be more successful in meeting future deadlines as well.

NARA also recently announced its plan to hold a market research day later this year, where vendors will potentially demonstrate solutions based on the Use Cases provided. Solutions presented by industry will certainly vary, but it is almost a guaranteed that automation will be prominently featured.

As NARA continues to engage industry on evaluating tools and best practices, it may have an opportunity to expand its role from educator and adviser to also becoming a vendor-neutral facilitator for fostering increased public-private collaboration — a role that can make a big impact on enabling agencies to meet the 2019 and 2022 deadlines, and beyond.

Automation may never be a mandate, but it is readily apparent that it is integral to the future of records management. The time to begin working toward that future is now.

April Chen is a senior product manager for data storage and information management company Iron Mountain.