Jul 30 2014

Is That Agency Tweet a Federal Record?

The National Archives and Records Administration says your agency tweets may be government records. Here’s what to do about that.

Federal agencies are increasingly using social media to communicate with their employees and the public. They repost information that is already available on government websites, as well as fresh, dynamic news and communications, suited especially to social media platforms.

In addition, many solicit and respond to comments from the public and provide links to nongovernmental websites.

The Navy describes the importance of using such online tools in its social media handbook. Its guidelines say, in part, that social media helps “fulfill your obligation to communicate with all of your stakeholders. It also provides another, often richer, means of sharing information with internal and external audiences. Your stakeholders are increasingly using social media, and you’re better off reaching them there than not at all.”

Using social media, however, may result in the creation of federal records. As agencies know, such records must be captured and managed in compliance with federal records management laws, regulations and policies.

One of the roles of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is to provide records management guidance to federal agencies. NARA’s Office of the Chief Records Officer leads this effort and recently issued a bulletin on managing social media, as well as a white paper on best practices for the capture of social media. But government is really just beginning to get its arms around the challenge of managing this growing, amorphous sea of electronic records.

Seeking Best Practices

Application of the policies and techniques needed to capture federal social media records in the executive branch is in its infancy. In May 2012, the Office of the Chief Records Officer and NARA’s Social Media Team held a forum with federal records management staff and web mangers to discuss best practices. Participants confirmed that they were using, testing or considering a number of tools. They also posed questions to us at NARA about what precisely they should be gathering. Still, through a series of presentations and discussions, only a few successful tools and techniques emerged that could be classified as best practices.

The fact of the matter is that social media content capture is an emerging practice, and records managers have not yet agreed on common standards for accomplishing it. Many of the available tools are focused on providing backup solutions to users, but they are not aimed at capturing social media for recordkeeping purposes. Some vendors provide a free basic service and then charge either for extra functionality or based on the number of information streams the organization must corral.

Although a number of tools appear promising, agencies are encouraged to articulate their requirements directly to social media providers. Because agencies use different platforms and have different needs, there is no one-size-fits-all tool for capturing social media records across the federal government.

Most agencies have social media policies in place that cover various important areas, such as what tools to use, who is allowed to create content, and what type of information agency employees can actually communicate on social media platforms. However, the act of capturing social media records is often left out of these broader social media policies.

Agencies should establish a foundation for successful capture by ensuring that appropriate policies and retention schedules are in place prior to using social media. Based on NARA’s experience and its interaction with agencies, here are some best practices that records managers and social media specialists can implement right away to begin managing social media content pursuant to federal requirements.

Build a Social Media Foundation

  • Create a social media working group composed of records management staff, web and social media managers, IT staff, privacy and information security staff, and other relevant stakeholders to write policy and procedures for identifying, managing and capturing social media records.
  • Apply the definition of a federal record when making agency-specific determinations about social media content and what components form a complete record.
  • Review existing records retention schedules to determine if social media records are covered. In the absence of an appropriate schedule, records must be treated as permanent until they are scheduled.

Choose Your Tools and Methods

  • Evaluate and test the available tools for social media capture to determine if they meet your needs, budget and skill levels. Agencies may be able to find free or low-cost tools to capture content that can then be managed in a recordkeeping system.
  • Consider using tools that are trans­parent in how they function and how they capture content. Open-source tools can be modified by the agency as necessary.
  • Use the export capabilities that certain platforms have built into their native systems. For example, the social networking platform Yammer converts content into CSV files and makes the files available for downloading. Other platforms, such as Twitter, offer the ability to directly download content.
  • Use open application programming interfaces to create customized tools that will allow appropriate export and download.

Implement a Capture Plan

  • Incorporate specific language into the terms of service for each new social media platform used that spells out capture and availability of content for export.
  • Determine and delegate roles and responsibilities for capture on internal and external sites.
  • Provide training for staff on how and when to use automated and manual capture tools.
  • Provide centralized guidance from a team of records management and web staff so that processes are standard across the agency.

Finally, we encourage agencies to share their lessons learned so others in the federal government can benefit from their experience. Colleagues say they want simple, effective and low-cost solutions for capturing social media records. Collectively, we can give it to them and meet the government’s responsibility to manage these decidedly 21st century records.

Read NARA’s Bulletin 2014-02, Guidance on Managing Social Media and NARA’s white paper on best practices for capturing social media.

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