Mar 19 2024
Digital Workspace

How Agencies Should Prepare for NARA’s Deadline to Digitize Federal Records

Newer technologies such as intelligent document processing are key.

Agencies face an uphill battle to scan, convert, tag and secure documents ahead of the National Archives and Records Administration’s deadline for digitizing permanent government records in June.

Although the time, labor and cost savings of digital records will be beneficial to agencies, the sheer volume of records is daunting, requiring federal IT leaders to tap into an array of technology solutions to get the job done.

NARA first set a Dec. 31, 2022, deadline for agencies to manage and transfer permanent electronic records to it to ensure their preservation and accessibility. The Office of Management and Budget and NARA later extended that deadline to June 30, 2024, citing pandemic delays and the complexities of shifting from paper-based to digital systems.

Lack of appropriate technology and security clearances have been among the major challenges in meeting the deadline, says Dan Huizinga, product manager for Granicus GovQA.

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Why Agencies Struggle to Handle Record Volume and Complexity

The amount of documents that must be digitized is staggering, Huizinga says.

Volume has been growing since at least 2018, but so has overall complexity, including page quantity, up 73 percent; file sizes, up 322 percent; and number of video files, up 131 percent, according to Granicus’ 2023 Public Records Complexity Benchmark Report.

“We have heard from records managers that NARA’s M-19-21 directive can be complicated by a lack of appropriate technology and obtaining the appropriate security clearance for review and oversight decisions on records releases,” Huizinga says.

Beyond the pandemic, which disrupted most everything at the time, agencies also commonly face resourcing challenges, says Lisa Haralampus, director of records management policy and outreach at the National Archives.



“Records management isn’t free, so agencies have to have an adequate budget,” she says. “And they often cite the challenge of having adequate staffing resources because they need people who have analytical skills.”

Not only must they understand how the entire framework of records management works at their agency, but they must also have the right IT knowledge.

“The last challenge is keeping it a top priority for agency management,” Haralampus says. “You can’t get things done if you don’t have that senior-level support.”

What Technologies Do Agencies Need to Meet NARA’s Deadline?

Agencies should use record request management technology that simplifies digital request intake with dynamic forms tied to back-end automated workflows, Huizinga says.

“For requests that still come in via phone call, mail, email, fax or a physical visit to the lobby to fill out a paper form, immediately convert these to digital records by entering the details on behalf of the requester into a request management system,” he advises.

That way, agencies can benefit from back-end workflow automation for the rest of the request process.

“Once an agency is free of the burden of paper, they greatly reduce the need and costs to maintain parallel processes,” Huizinga says.

Agencies can best finish in a timely manner by focusing exclusively on the work that must be done and being rigorous about retention schedules, he adds.

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“An initial step is to lawfully destroy any records that are past their valuable life and purge anything that doesn’t need to be kept,” Huizinga says. “From there, the digital transformation process can begin.”

As agencies move from physical documents to digital-born records, they must establish an order for how and when to digitize older documents, says Melissa Carson, vice president and general manager of Iron Mountain Government Solutions.

“The traditional scanning process is time-consuming and, when not done carefully, highly prone to errors and poor image quality,” she says. “One mistake, and suddenly a significant chunk of documents is in question.”

Many organizations launch their digitization on an ad hoc basis using old-fashioned, people-intensive scanning with manual indexing and data capture, which Carson says can take eight times longer than newer methods.

“Plus, if not organized at the enterprise level, the agency will end up with many individual digital repositories with different metadata taxonomies spread across multiple departments,” Carson says. “This completely misses the primary digitization goals of centralized visibility, ease of access and a repository ready to be accessioned to NARA.”

The key technological advancement over the past two years has been intelligent document processing, which is powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“Cloud-based IDP solutions can help extract both structured and unstructured data faster and with better accuracy than traditional methods,” Carson says. “This provides a quick and cost-effective way to digitize data trapped on paper, microfiche, tapes and more.”

Dan Huizinga
Once an agency is free of the burden of paper, they greatly reduce the need and costs to maintain parallel processes.”

Dan Huizinga Product Manager, Granicus GovQA

What Are the Benefits of Digitizing Records?

The benefits of digitized records touch both economy and efficiency, underscoring the need for agencies to modernize their processes and fully embrace electronic recordkeeping to enhance government effectiveness, Haralampus says.

“The idea is to have instant access to information at your desktop, regardless of where you are,” she says. “It’s about being able to find, share, retrieve and access information when it’s kept in a digital recordkeeping system versus a paper record system.”

A second advantage is that information becomes more valuable once it’s able to be analyzed.

“If it’s in a box, you just can’t get that sense of it,” Haralampus says. “When you can leverage an electronic records management tool, you actually add value to those records because you can see them completely.”

Digital records also reduce the time it takes to set up a requester to view the physical documents during business hours, or to make copies or scan individual documents to mail or email to the requester. 

“When governments search for responsive documents, leveraging keywords enables officials to review high volumes of electronic files without even having to open them,” Huizinga says.

As they review natively digital documents — or properly scanned, tagged and indexed records — agencies can ease their administrative burden because searching them takes seconds.

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Security Should Be Part of the Digitization Process 

For agencies to control access to confidential and protected data, it’s important to close security gaps and reduce cyberthreats with software that blocks unauthorized access to protected data from staff and public users — beginning with configurable security permissions and multifactor authentication.

“Boundary protection for digital records must include a firewall to restrict access at the external boundary access point,” Huizinga says. “Controlling data integrity includes using modern redaction tools that enable efficient and secure search, review, redaction and application of exemption reasons.”

Agencies would benefit from request management tools that produce flatlock redacted files with autogenerated exemption logs for a defensible audit trail to reduce the risk of accidentally exposing confidential and protected data, he adds.

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