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NARA’s Path to a Paperless Government Puts Cloud First

Automation, eDiscovery and cloud are improving records management in digital environments.

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The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is at the heart of transforming the American public’s relationship with government, and it’s doing so by modernizing digital tools and platforms that improve search, analysis and storage capabilities as federal agencies transition from paper to electronic records.

“NARA accessions and preserves these permanent records as part of our nation’s history. Our entire agency mission involves making these records available to the public. One of our critical mission statements in NARA’s Strategic Plan summarizes this idea — ‘make access happen.’ From data sharing to eDiscovery and digitizing records, these strategies are all used in some way as part of NARA’s mission,” Laurence Brewer, NARA’s chief records officer, told GovernmentCIO Media & Research.

The 2019 Memorandum for Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies: Transition to Electronic Records required federal agencies to begin the transition to a “paperless government.” As more agencies transfer digital records to NARA, the agency is looking to increase storage capacities by transitioning from off-premises storage solutions to cloud.

NARA has adopted a “cloud first” approach because the agency’s IT systems play a critical role in supporting its mission, Sheena Burrell, NARA’s deputy CIO told GovernmentCIO Media & Research. To meet the processing and storage needs of the anticipated influx of records, NARA’s IT investments are using the efficiency, storage and scaling capabilities of cloud-based resources.

“One of NARA’s key roles is to serve as an authoritative, central data repository for other agencies and government branches. This role requires interoperability among these agencies, and NARA took this into consideration when looking at the competitiveness and maturity of the cloud market,” Burrell said.

Currently, NARA is creating a multi-cloud strategy that leverages a variety of cloud services in the marketplace. This strategy will help move NARA from the current development state to a continuous and evolving multi-cloud environment that can rapidly respond to evolving business needs and is flexible, secure, agile and cost-effective.

“Moving to a multi-cloud approach gives NARA the ability to move services from one cloud service provider (CSP) to another and the capability to distribute services between two or more CSPs to address redundancy, integrity, service quality and capacity,” Burrell said. “NARA will be able to access and use the best available products and services that each CSP has to offer, increasing innovation and decreasing NARA’s operational costs.”

Once records are digitized, NARA is using innovative search processes, like eDiscovery, to expedite search processes. Brewer noted that NARA recently acquired an eDiscovery tool to assist with search, review and production of archival records in a limited capacity.

“We are optimistic that the advanced search and machine-learning capabilities of the tool will improve our ability to respond to special access requests in a timely manner, and we hope to expand the use of such tools to other types of requests as our experience with them grows,” Brewer said.

As NARA modernizes its systems and transitions to a “paperless government,” the agency is prioritizing access and equity. NARA has emphasized issues of equity as the crucial centerpiece of the agency’s strategic plan over the next four years.

“These include building relationships with underrepresented communities and maximizing equitable access to holdings through enhanced archival processing and reparative description. NARA is striving to ensure that increasing access to digitized content not only focuses on volume, but also on meaningful experiences for the greatest variety of its users as possible,” Brewer said.

Moving forward, NARA plans to build on automation tools that will help the agency reduce workforce burdens. Burrell said that an intelligent automation processing solution like robotic process automation (RPA) is one tool on the horizon. RPA will help NARA streamline operations and expedite processing for finding and analyzing electronic records.

“While agencies will still need to focus on foundational work to modernize records management processes, including records inventory and scheduling, training and program evaluation, our vision is to see records management carried out transparently to users, in ways that are more consistently and effectively done leveraging artificial intelligence and other cognitive technologies,” Brewer said.

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