The archives dilemma: Where to store all those records

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Federal agencies are striving to squeeze greater value from the information they generate and collect, but the costs of accessing, managing and storing that information are rising. At the same time, space constraints are causing agencies to literally think “outside-the-box” for their records and information management solutions. With records growing at an exponential rate, many agencies find they are quickly becoming space-constrained, while being asked to shrink their real property portfolios.

Earlier this year, the Office of Management and Budget enacted the “Reduce the Footprint” policy, a regulatory requirement forcing agencies to reduce their physical footprint to a new baseline that won’t change until 2020. The policy applies to records storage space, so agencies now have no choice but to be more creative with their solutions.

Currently, the federal government uses 11.5 million square feet of office space to house records, at an annual cost of $250 million. The “Reduce the Footprint” policy, along with other mandates, is forcing records managers and property/facilities managers to work together to develop creative space design solutions to help them balance growing records demands with the ongoing space challenges. Yet, different solutions will require records management expertise to ensure government records are fully protected, available and stored for the proper duration, as required by the National Archives and Records Administration.

To resolve these challenges, agencies must creatively optimize space for records storage to meet federal requirements that demand greater consolidation, while ensuring records storage is compliant with existing regulations. Agency-designated senior real property officers (SRPOs) must work with their agency records officers (AROs) to assess how much office or warehouse space their agency is currently using for records storage and at what cost to their agency.

Approximately 60 percent of agency records are currently stored by agencies onsite, including basement locations, cubicles, and empty offices or conference rooms. However, this translates to overpriced real estate and exposes agencies to unnecessary risk, such as environmental exposure.

It can be daunting for agency SRPOs and AROs to anticipate what real property footprint changes will be required to meet benchmarks over the next five years. Storage solutions must be flexible enough to accommodate this uncertainty, but also secure, optimally efficient and fully compliant with the full scope of federal regulations. Finding a solution capable of walking this tightrope of challenges requires a significant investment of agency time and budget.

Unlike the federal government, private industry partners are able to focus their efforts, devoting time and resources to finding such a solution. By taking advantage of an offsite industry option, agencies are typically able to obtain self-managed or full-service solutions at a comparable or much less expensive price point than federally provided storage solutions. (A comparison of commercial versus federal storage costs can be found in a GAO report on storing federal records.)

Moving records storage offsite can offer some added benefits to agencies, including:

  • More efficient use of space: Industry-strategic space design standards are essential for handling the growing number of agency records. Vendors are capable of providing records lifecycle management consultation, which helps agencies to design and implement an end-to-end compliant records management program with direct correlations to records management directives. By consolidating onsite file rooms under one location, agencies will be able to maximize their storage density and reduce the footprint of their physical space. Digitization services would help to manage electronic records and to convert physical records into digital records whenever allowable.
  • Easier access to records: Agency SRPOs and AROs would choose from a number of services that support agency best practices and the flexibility to move a mix of records management functions to an offsite, dedicated space. It would be easier, for example, to track and manage records through a centralized, online records catalogue. The agency would potentially receive faster turn-around on retrievals, expertise in logistics, as well as secure transportation and destruction of records.
  • Outsourced management of the storage properties: Using existing NARA-regulated and federal code-compliant environments available through industry providers, where records are stored in a fully secured and defensible manner, would remove much of the burden from SRPOs. Records storage space and office space would be tailored to agency needs and benefit from optimal security features and property management add-ons, such as maintenance, cleaning and snow removal.

In addition to being competitively priced with federal government-owned facilities, industry-provided storage lifts the burden off of agencies that are challenged with aspects like storage specifications, management and compliance.

There are advantages to consolidating records storage under the umbrella of a single provider. Foremost among them is the ability to tackle two seemingly contradictory mandates: Agencies will not only be fulfilling their obligation to reduce their footprint, they’ll also have a more systematic way to manage the never-ending expansion of records that must be managed. But it also offers another benefit: Agency executives will also be free to redistribute the space and resources formerly used for records storage to more mission-critical focus areas.

Marisa Banigan is product manager at Iron Mountain Government Services, an enterprise information management services company.

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Agencies, Commentary, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
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