Records management protocol has been shifted to the top of priority lists within government offices following a Presidential Memorandum late last year. This has encouraged federal agencies to investigate new ways of enhancing the efficiency and transparency of their operations. President Obama’s calls for reform were much more than political rhetoric, however, as each government organization has been tasked with submitting concrete plans for embracing technological innovations and bringing their policies and practices up to speed.
As federal agencies with dozens or even hundreds of satellite offices look to keep all collaborators on the same page, they may be wise to take a page out of corporate playbooks when putting thought into action.
A steep challenge
Any time an organization is asked to make a fundamental departure from the status quo, there are sure to be a number of hurdles that need to be crossed. The first is often a cultural one, as some employees may at first find it difficult to change long-held habits. With some offices staring down seemingly insurmountable workloads, it is understandable that they be hesitant to take additional time out to learn new processes and systems.
Another barrier to success surrounds the concept of diversity of information. Government offices are tasked with managing not just large, but also disparate data sets. The Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, handles records relating to everything from military service and medical histories to home loans and life insurance. Records managers must diligently identify and classify files on the basis of type, relevance, sensitivity and dozens of other factors.
Diversity also emerges in the form of organizational dispersion. Public sector operations are rarely contained within just one office, or even one agency. Organizations like the Federal Reserve Board, for example, have regional offices all across the country. Considering the sensitivity of the financial data being managed, the stakes of accidental miscommunications and systemic glitches are extremely high.
Many of these same challenges are mirrored in the everyday operations of private sector companies. With large, globalized corporations tasked with navigating the complexities of geographical dispersion, international rules and regulation and vast cultural differences, business executives must be thoughtful enough to understand relevant market developments and agile enough to change course and alter strategy on a moment’s notice. With that said, government agencies may be able to learn a few new tricks by observing how their corporate counterparts balance competing priorities and serve their various stakeholders.
Have a plan
In the business world, success does not occur by accident. Companies gather and integrate insight from multiple sources to understand the challenges facing them and respond with the most appropriate strategies. Having a comprehensive and well-rehearsed plan can make all the difference when it comes time to take action. These same principles can be applied to great effect in the public sector.
When faced with a challenge, business executives rely upon their teams to observe best practices in the marketplace and investigate all potential options before deciding on any one strategy. Whether it’s analyzing the actions of colleagues or competitors, or ranking vendor offerings, no stone is left unturned. In the realm of records management, this could mean poring over case studies of companies that have incorporated offsite record storage or discovering that a business partner has been keeping their archives at a reasonable volume through secure shredding.
Once a course of action has been identified, someone must be held accountable for seeing it through to completion. If all members understand exactly what is expected of them, teams can narrow their focus toward accomplishing that goal.
The long-term success of any project is also heavily reliant on visionary leadership. In the corporate world, department heads and company executives must be masterful communicators, setting the tone in the workplace and gaining consensus on the vision. To trigger the necessary shift in culture, for example, directors will have to lead by example and be a knowledgeable advocate for the changes underway.
In terms of government records management, this will mean educating staff as to the consequences of inaction as well as the benefits of innovation. Whereas the spector of noncompliance sanctions will be enough to galvanize support from some staff, the nobility of government transparency or the efficiency of new processes may be more motivating for others.
Surrounding yourself with the right people
Records managers must make an honest assessment of their agency’s strengths and weaknesses. With the wide range of responsibilities placed on their plates, it would be unreasonable to suggest that each area is receiving necessary attention and that all operational components have been optimized.
Although some fear that external contributors may only further complicate internal organizational structures, outside insight and even contracted services could be the crucial enablers that clear the path for government agencies facing challenging goals. The first level is seeking the advice of outside experts.
For example, the Department of Justice was recently awarded the dubious honor of being the least efficient federal agency in terms of responding to Freedom of Information Act requests. Instead of taking objection to the criticisms from the administrators of the George Washington University National Security Archives, creators of the award, the DoJ has been working hard to take constructive criticism into account and was recently able to report significant progress in reducing its FOIA processing backlog.
Aside from leveraging outsider perspectives, there is also reason to investigate contracted services. With logistical concerns such as staffing and real estate making it nearly impossible for some government offices to manage their growing document collections in-house, a number have already chosen to partner with an information management company capable of serving as a reliable intermediary.
- Obama Government Records Management Memo Proves History Repeats Itself
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- Federal Mandate: Presidential Memorandum – Managing Government Records