NARA Drives Govt Transition to All-Electronic Records

08.19.19 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is embarking on an ambitious effort to phase out the acquisition of paper records by 2022 and to transition to all-electronic record keeping. The White House Office of Management and Budget has endorsed the initiative and has directed all federal agencies to adopt exclusively electronic formats for managing permanent records.

But the move is generating anxiety about the feasibility of the transition and about possible unintended negative consequences for public access to government records.

“The most significant part of [the new policy is the provision for NARA] to stop accepting paper records by December 31, 2022,” wrote David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, in a June 28 notice to NARA employees.

Accordingly, the Acting Director of OMB directed all agency heads to plan to operate all but exclusively in an all-electronic environment.

“By December 31, 2022, all permanent records in Federal agencies will be managed electronically to the fullest extent possible for eventual transfer and accessioning by NARA in an electronic format,” the June 28 OMB memo stated.

After 2022, agencies will be obliged to convert any remaining permanent analog records in their possession to digital formats for transfer to NARA.

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The new policy shows some signs of carelessness in its formulation. The paragraphs in the OMB memorandum are incorrectly numbered. The text includes reference to a “section 2.2” which does not exist. Meanwhile, several more substantial concerns have been raised by dissenting observers and employees.

“There are significant and crucial [paper] records that have not been, and will not be, transferred into the system by 2022,” said one records specialist who is critical of the new policy. These include some original Department of State SCI-level records dating back to the 1940s, as well as many classified original records from CIA, NRO, NSA, DoD/OSD, and FBI that have been withheld from the National Archives.

A NARA official countered that those records could and should be transferred to NARA by the 2022 deadline. But if they are not transferred, then agencies could seek an exception for those records, or else they would be obliged to digitize them.

Isn’t that an unfunded mandate that is likely to result in inferior digitized copies of valuable originals?

Not if agencies change their practices, NARA says. Agencies currently are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to store and service paper records. If the new policy is successfully implemented, those resources could be repurposed for digitization of remaining records and investment in electronic records management that meets archival standards. By all accounts new resources will be required to enable NARA to accommodate vast new collections of electronic records and to process them for public access.

Still, said a critic of the new policy, “It reflects a fundamental change in NARA’s mission from the identification and protection of the permanently valuable records to the protection of images of records; from protection of originals to protection of facsimiles.”

There are two deeply divided schools of thought on that point, NARA acknowledges. One view holds that a properly digitized copy is perfectly acceptable, while an opposing view considers that digitized copies are only valid for improving access while the original [paper] record is “the record.” The point becomes largely moot as new paper originals recede into the past in favor of electronic originals.

In any case, the imposition of a 2022 deadline for conversion to an all-electronic environment is “forcing a lot of useful conversations,” according to a NARA official who admits that some anxiety may not be out of place.

“This is going to be a colossal disaster for the records and those who depend on them,” an internal critic said.

No, it’s going to be a “soft disruption,” the NARA official said. Implementation of the policy will be flexible, the official said. “Nothing will be lost.”

“We’re in the process of shifting the entire government off of paper and to all electronic record-keeping,” Archivist Ferriero told the Washington City Paper last week. “We are playing a major role in helping the agencies get to that point.”