When was the last time a definition of records management left a person feeling inspired? August 24, 2012 just might be that time.

A new memorandum issued by the US Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) provided further direction to federal agencies for managing government records. According to the memo, available in PDF format here, we should recognize that:

Records are the foundation of open government, supporting the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration. Well-managed records can be used to assess the impact of programs, to improve business processes, and to share knowledge across the Government. Records protect the rights and interests of people, and hold officials accountable for their actions. Permanent records document our nation’s history."

Placing records at the center of public sector business and acknowledging their importance in protecting rights, fighting corruption, preserving history and building trust in public sector institutions is a refreshing perspective compared to the compliance-driven paranoia that often pervades vendor messaging in the records management industry. Do we build a foundation for knowledge protection or embark on a search and destroy mission?

Powerful Calls to Action - But Will a 2019 Deadline Mean Slow Adoption?

This new directive provides a framework to help further adoption of record keeping practices that align with the November 2011 Presidential Memorandum on Managing Government Records. The directive outlines some powerful calls to action for federal information professionals and, while aimed at US Federal agencies, there is much in this document that can be applied in public sector at all levels and in other jurisdictions.

Public institutions around the world are facing these very same technical, cultural and process challenges. There is hard work to be done. Three of the tougher, but perhaps most meaningful, tasks that lie ahead for US Federal information professionals are:

1. Get Serious About Digital Preservation

Lack of digital preservation standards means 81 percent of agencies are printing and filing e-mail records that need to be retained. Yes, 81 percent. There is a mish-mash of approaches to preserving e-mail in electronic format, none of which provides the comfort that paper can for items that may need to survive for 30 or more years.

While storage and preservation for the long term can be addressed with migration and conversion planning, meaningful access and use of that content is a major area of risk and concern. The reliance on paper will not disappear until the public sector has a credible digital alternative.

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Image Source: 2011 NARA Report

2. Allow the Public Sector Records Community to Build the Tools They Need

Records management (RM) is one of the few aspects of the content management world that remains undisrupted by proven open source options. This directive seeks to change that by the end of 2014. Cost effective and flexible technology choices are essential when seeking new ways to manage digital content.

According to the August 24 Directive, “the Federal Chief Information Officers Council, and the Federal Records Council, working with NARA, will obtain external involvement for the development of open source records management solutions.” This has tremendous implications for the RM market in general. No one is offering a meaningful approach to open source RM tools today.

The two leading contenders in the open source ECM space -- Alfresco and Nuxeo -- have not fully delivered on the promise of open source records management. While Alfresco has made the commitment to DoD 5015.2 compliance for its RM modules, the latest version 2.0 is not yet available in the open source community edition, only in a closed enterprise edition.

The Alfresco vision for its RM offering is also somewhat at odds with the US Federal vision for records management as outlined in the beginning of this article. A recent Alfresco webinar on its RM 2.0 product described records management to be “the art of throwing things away” -- not exactly in alignment with a view of records as a foundation for good government and citizen engagement.

Nuxeo, on the other hand, appears to have dropped records management from its platform roadmap entirely, after making some effort to explore it in 2010. The recent roadmap presentation offered by the vendor makes no mention of RM at all.

Allowing public sector developers and information professionals, along with their trusted external partners to design, code, share and adapt records management tools for government needs should result in faster, cheaper, more secure delivery of technology appropriate for 21st century record keeping needs.

3. Take Records Management to the Cloud

By the end of 2013, NARA will require that agencies who are adopting cloud systems for services or storage identify how the initiative meets record keeping obligations. One of the most significant risks of cloud computing and many Software-as-a-Service file storage or collaboration offerings is the lack of records management functionality and few assurances that information is being appropriately disposed of when marked for deletion.

This is another opportunity for cloud service providers to enhance their service level agreements and provide additional management capabilities for records. Closing this gap in the end-to-end lifecycle management of cloud-hosted information is the next logical step for cloud providers, particularly when delivered within the guidelines offered by NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) or the FFIEC (recommendations for financial services companies).

But with a 2019 deadline, will adoption be slow? Will it take seven years to see this vision become reality?

A Fedgov/Mashable article on this new directive quoted Anne Weismann, chief counsel for the Center for Responsibility and Ethics, a group focused on government transparency. Weismann expressed the concern that the deadline is a long one and it may be easy for agencies not to act.

The public sector has an opportunity to innovate the records management profession, by adopting new approaches to content storage and new approaches to sharing tools, expertise and code. The challenge? Will it happen fast enough to eliminate the risk of losing our digital public record?

Editor's Note: Another article by Cheryl McKinnon you might be interested in reading:

-- Ripped from the Headlines: How to Not Manage Records in 2012