Federal Records Management

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The first part of this checklist identifies high-level issues that Records Officers need to consider before initiating any discussion with their Chief Information Officers [CIOs] about moving towards electronic recordkeeping. Once these records management [RM] considerations are addressed, the second part of the checklist identifies high-level issues that should be conveyed to their CIO and information technology [IT] staff prior to implementing an electronic recordkeeping system [ERKS] within their agency.

It should be noted that the distinction between IT issues and RM issues is somewhat artificial. Most of the issues listed below have implications for both IT and RM, and indeed, there is some overlap with those issues discussed in Preliminary Planning for Electronic Recordkeeping: Checklist for IT Staff.

RM Issues to Consider Before Talking to Your CIO About ERK

  • Does your agency have a functioning records management program?

Prior to implementing an electronic recordkeeping system [ERKS], your agency first may want to conduct an evaluation of its existing records management program. Just as an agency would not automate a poorly designed paper-based system, agencies should design a well-built ERKS on a solid records management foundation. Technology is just a part of the solution; it is a complement to an existing, fully functioning records management program. This means re-thinking the structure and functions of your existing program. Some items to consider when evaluating your agency's records management program may be:

  • Will your current RM staffing level support an electronic recordkeeping [ERK] environment?

Your agency's current records management staffing level may need to be adjusted once the agency decides to move to ERK. Staffing levels will vary depending on agency size, current staff make-up, and the ERK environment. Agencies considering moving to ERK will require staff with strong RM and IT skills, such as file plan development and database administration. Interpersonal skills, such as the ability to work as part of a team and to effectively communicate, are of utmost importance. The following are important questions to consider:

  • Does the current organizational placement of the RM staff make sense in the ERK environment?
  • Does your agency have an up-to-date listing of records?
  • Does your agency have an enterprise-wide classification scheme or file plan?
  • Do all staff understand and know how to use the agency file plan?
  • Does your agency have records schedules, which contain business rules regarding how long records are maintained?
  • Has the National Archives and Records Administration [NARA] approved your agency's records schedules?
  • Has your agency identified how records management [RM] practices will change as ERK is implemented?

Moving to ERK affects existing RM practices. How much your program will be affected will depend on such factors as the existence of a solid records management foundation, your organizational culture, and the current IT architecture. An effective way to determine your agency's readiness for adopting ERK might be to conduct an analysis of current business processes and recordkeeping practices. This analysis could serve a number of purposes, including:

  • determining if your recordkeeping practices are preserving sufficient evidence of your agency's actions (i.e., is your agency currently keeping adequate records?);
  • identifying needs for coordinating manual and automated RM processes and procedures, for records on any media, to ensure that they are available when and where they are needed;
  • identifying changes to business processes that could be made in conjunction with implementing ERK;
  • developing benchmarks against which future changes to business processes and/or recordkeeping practices can be measured.

Based on this analysis your agency can develop strategic and operational plans for implementing ERK and optimizing business processes and recordkeeping practices. These plans will provide a road map for implementation and will ensure that recordkeeping practices and business processes are examined and changed when necessary.

  • Have you determined when and how documents will be classified as records and controlled vocabulary terms for retrieval will be assigned, and who will be responsible?

Many COTS [Commercial-Off-The-Shelf] ERK systems incorporate some level of workflow functionality. Depending on the organizational policies or changes that will accompany ERKS implementation, it is possible that the ERKS user who creates/receives an electronic record might not be the same as the person who classifies the record (i.e., places the record in the appropriate file category or assigns indexing terms for retrieval purposes). Policy development accompanying ERKS implementation must address either case. Where existing controlled vocabularies are used for classification purposes (e.g., an agency thesaurus), the implementation plan must include the incorporation of such vocabularies into the ERKS.

  • Have you determined which electronic records your electronic recordkeeping system [ERKS] will capture (i.e., what is the scope of your ERKS)?

Determining the scope of your agency's initial ERKS implementation is crucial to its success. Agencies roll out ERK systems more effectively when the system's scope is limited to certain electronic records or document types, such as e-mail or correspondence. Focusing on one document type, such as correspondence, allows users to gain familiarity with the system's 'look and feel' as well as with the new task of profiling documents. Often users suddenly realize that they could be doing this with all their documents and are eager to expand the ERKS system's scope.

There are three basic types of users for an ERKS. The contributor adds records to the system as well as searches for records in the database. The consumer is someone who has read-only access, can find records within the ERKS and perhaps, make a copy. The coordinator, also referred to as the administrator, has access to all functions. These different roles and responsibilities require training in different skill sets, all of which will necessarily include a refresher in RM fundamentals.

RM Issues to Convey to Your CIO About ERK

  • Has your agency identified how to 'phase in' your ERKS (i.e., which types of electronic records to focus on capturing initially and which types subsequently)?

Agencies implementing an ERKS recommend taking a phased versus a day-forward approach. This means defining a limited set of functional areas in which to employ ERK and bringing users on-line gradually (as opposed to attempting to profile the universe of an agency's documents all at once). Another approach that agencies may want to consider is to identify a pilot project that could be a good starting point for your agency. A successful pilot project can go a long way to selling ERKS to users. Either approach is preferable to bringing the system on-line throughout the agency in one day.

  • Have you determined where, organizationally, the electronic record repository will reside (if in a single location) and who will have the responsibility for maintaining it?

The database portion of an ERKS may reside in a single location or in many locations. In either case, the management of the ERKS as an IT system will probably require some IT technical support. This will require a clear delineation of IT responsibilities versus RM responsibilities. (This may also affect the software license configurations needed by the agency.)

  • Has your agency addressed the cultural change issues associated with implementing an ERKS?

Cultural change issues, including human factors, might include concerns such as mutual understanding of terminology and workforce skill levels. Left unaddressed, cultural change issues can de-rail even the best technological solution. Cultural change issues and level of records management knowledge are different for each agency, and sometimes among organizational units within an agency. Therefore, agencies should examine their own environment and develop strategies, such as the utilization of focus groups, prototyping, pilot projects, and human factors laboratories in system design, to address these issues.

There are three basic types of users for an ERK. These different roles and responsibilities require different skills, which should be provided by mandatory training that accounts for the varying levels of experience with records and desktop technologies. The importance of training to successful ERK implementation cannot be overstated.

  • Does your ERKS implementation plan devote sufficient resources (i.e., time, money, and people with the appropriate expertise) to ensure a successful deployment?

Establishing an ERKS is a very time consuming activity. The implementation plan must provide the time necessary to customize the application, and time for the responsible staff to become comfortable using it. One factor that must be considered is the expertise and existing workload of the records management and information technology staffs. Implementing an ERKS is a long term, labor-intensive process that may require an agency to contract for certain activities.

  • Has the ERKS Project Team identified differences (RM vs. IT) in terminology and have they developed a consensus about use of terms?

IT staffs and records managers often use the same terms in different ways. It is important to identify the differences and develop consensus about how the terms will be used. The team should be pragmatic: the goal should not be to develop a canonical definition of "document" or "document management," but rather to settle on a common set of definitions of terms. Here are some of the problematic terms and some commonly used, but not authoritative, definitions that highlight the potential for misunderstanding:

  1. Regarding the objects to be managed:


  • IT: A collection of data items (sometime called fields) each of which contains an item of information (such as a date or name) about a specific subject or activity. Sometimes referred to as a database record.
  • RM: Any book, paper, map, photograph, database record, e-mail message, image, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, that is made or received by a Federal agency and is evidence of the organization's activities or has informational value. This is the definition of a Federal record in the Federal Records Act. This definition describes only one of the classes of records the Federal Government is concerned with (others include Presidential record, record under FOIA).


  • IT: A word processing text file, completed form, voucher or other representation of stored information.
  • RM: Structured or semi-structured information (such as a book, memo, letter, map, etc.), that has a predictable structure and can be accessed and read by people.


  • IT: In data processing, a file is a collection of records. In computer applications, a file is an entity of information that has a unique name, a particular format, and usually a specific file name suffix.
  • RM: An accumulation of business materials arranged according to a plan and related to each other in some way (e.g., a case file).


  • IT: A collection of computer files that has been moved from central magnetic disk storage to another location (either for backup purposes or for storage on less expensive storage media) from which they can be recalled to online status if needed.
  • RM: A collection of non-current Federal records that has been removed permanently from an agency, transported physically (in an acceptable format) to NARA where NARA assumes legal responsibility for their preservation because of their continuing, or enduring, value.


  • IT: Data that describes other data. The term may also refer to any computer file or database that holds information about another database's structure, processing, changes, etc. Data dictionaries and data repositories are examples of metadata.
  • RM: Metadata is a term that describes or specifies characteristics that need to be known about data in order to build information resources such as electronic recordkeeping systems and support records creators and users.

These could include key words selected from an index list, file plan, classification system, and/or data that are tagged in every document, that are assigned to a Federal record by its creator or recipient to describe the record and connect it in some relevant way to people, processes and products within the organization.

  1. Regarding the functions that Records Managers typically think of comprising ERK (that will need to be explained to IT management/staff):
  • Filing (and designating)
    Putting documents into their place in accordance with a plan, or a set of policies and procedures for organizing and identifying files or documents to speed their retrieval, use, and disposition. [Source: Federal Records Management Glossary] Filing a document into an electronic recordkeeping system is sometimes also called "declaring" the document a Federal record.
  • Classifying (or indexing; profiling)
    Assigning to a document an appropriate code or category from the agency file plan. This is sometimes also called "indexing" or "profiling" the document, although both these words have more precise meanings. Indexing usually involves assigning terms from a thesaurus or some formal taxonomy other than the agency file plan. Profiling usually involves tagging a document with the data an organization has agreed to associate with all its important records, e.g., date, author, recipient, etc.
  • Archiving
    Preserving a collection of non-current Federal records that have been removed permanently from an agency and transported physically (in an acceptable format) to NARA, because of their continuing, or enduring, value.
  • Retention
    Ensuring that records are retained for use as long as is required by the agency for its business purposes, a determination which is either set by NARA in the General Records Schedule or approved by NARA following a formal request by an agency.
  • Disposition (and destruction; deletion)
    The actions taken regarding records and nonrecords no longer needed for current Government business. These actions include, for records, transfer to agency storage facilities or Federal records centers, transfer from one Federal agency to another, transfer of permanent records to the National Archives, and disposal of temporary records. For nonrecords, these actions include screening and destruction.

    Destruction is the primary type of disposal action and can include burning, shredding, deleting, or discarding with other waste materials. In the electronic realm, destruction is typically accomplished by overwriting or degaussing, depending on security requirements. Deleting, which is normally only associated with electronic materials, is the process of erasing or obliterating recorded information from a magnetic tape or disk. This is typically accomplished by elimination of the operating system's pointer in the storage device's file allocation table.
  1. Regarding the related document system technologies that IT staff will typically think about bringing to bear in an ERK solution:
  • EDMS (electronic document management systems)
    A system that enables you to store and manage (retrieve, share, track, revise, and distribute) documents electronically. An integrated EDMS should include at least the following document technologies: document management, imaging, text retrieval, and workflow.
  • DM (document management)
    The process of profiling, storing, foldering, securing, tracking, retrieving and otherwise managing electronically, documents of various types and formats.
  • Workflow
    The automation of business processes, in whole or in part, where documents, information or tasks are passed from one participant to another for action, according to a set of rules.
  • Imaging
    The process of converting paper documents to digitized form and storing, managing, and retrieving the digitized images.
  • Text Retrieval
    The process of selecting a specific document(s) from a storage repository by using words that might appear in the text of documents that are desired.