On November 28, 2011, The White House issued a Presidential Memorandum that outlines what is expected of the 480 federal agencies of the government’s three branches in the next 240 days. Up until now, Washington, D.C. has been the Wild West with regard to information governance as each agency has often unilaterally adopted its own arbitrary policies and systems. Moreover, some agencies have recently purchased differing technologies. Unfortunately, with the President’s ultimate goal of uniformity, this centralization will be difficult to accomplish with a range of disparate technological approaches.
Particular pain points for the government traditionally include retention, search, collection, review and production of vast amounts of data and records. Specifically, these pain points include examples of: FOIA requests gone awry, the issuance of legal holds across different agencies leading to spoliation, and the ever present problem of decentralization.
Why is the government different?
Old Practices. First, in some instances the government is technologically behind (its corporate counterparts) and is failing to meet the judiciary’s expectation that organizations effectively store, manage and discover their information. This failing is self-evident via the directive coming from the President mandating that these agencies start to get a plan to attack this problem. Though different than other corporate entities, the government is nevertheless held to the same standards of eDiscovery under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP). In practice, the government has been given more leniency until recently, and while equal expectations have not always been the case, the gap between the private and public sectors in no longer possible to ignore.
FOIA. The government’s arduous obligation to produce information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has no corresponding analog for private organizations, who are responding to more traditional civil discovery requests. Because the government is so large with many disparate IT systems, it is cumbersome to work efficiently through the information governance process across agencies and many times still difficult inside one individual agency with multiple divisions. Executing this production process is even more difficult if not impossible to do manually without properly deployed technology. Additionally, many of the investigatory agencies that issue requests to the private sector need more efficient ways to manage and review data they are requesting. To compound problems, within the US government there are two opposing interests are at play; both screaming for a resolution, and that solution needs to be centralized. On the one hand, the government needs to retain more than a corporation may need to in order to satisfy a FOIA request.
Titan Pulled at Both Ends. On the other hand, without classification of the records that are to be kept, technology to organize this vast amount of data and some amount of expiry, every agency will essentially become their own massive repository. The “retain everything mentality” coupled with the inefficient search and retrieval of data and records is where they stand today. Corporations are experiencing this on a smaller scale today and many are collectively further along than the government in this process, without the FOIA complications.
What are agencies doing to address these mandates?
In their plans, agencies must describe how they will improve or maintain their records management programs, particularly with regard to email, social media and other electronic communications. They must also move away from such a paper-centric existence. eDiscovery consultants and software companies are helping agencies through this process, essentially writing their plans to match the President’s directive. The cloud conversation has been revisited, and agencies also have to explain how they will use cloud-based services and storage solutions, as well as identify gaps in existing laws or regulations that presently prevent improved management. Small innovations are taking place. In fact, just recently the DOJ added a new search feature on their website to make it easier for the public to find documents that have been posted by agencies on their websites.
The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and Justice Department will use those reports to come up with a government-wide records management framework that is more efficient, maintains accountability by documenting agency actions and promotes "appropriate" public access to records. Hopefully, the framework they come up with will be centralized and workable on a realistic timeframe with resources sufficiently allocated to the initiative.
How much will this cost?
The President’s mandate is a great initiative and very necessary, but one cannot help but think about the costs in terms of money, time and resources when considering these crucial changes. The most recent version of a financial services and general government appropriations bill in the Senate extends $378.8 million to NARA for this initiative. President Obama appointed Steven VanRoekel as the United States CIO in August 2011 to succeed Vivek Kundra. After VanRoekel’s speech at the Churchill Club in October of 2011, an audience member asked him what the most surprising aspect of his new job was. VanRoekel said that it was managing the huge and sometimes unwieldy resources of his $80 billion budget. It is going to take even more than this to do the job right, however.
Using conservative estimates, assume for an agency to implement archiving and eDiscovery capabilities as an initial investment would be $100 million. That approximates $480 billion for all 480 agencies. Assume a uniform information governance platform gets adopted by all agencies at a 50% discount due to the large contracts and also factoring in smaller sums for agencies with lesser needs. The total now comes to $240 billion. For context, that figure is 5% of what was spent by Federal Government ($4.76 trillion) on the biggest bailout in history in 2008. That leaves a need for $160 billion more to get the job done. VanRoekel also commented at the same meeting that he wants to break down massive multi-year information technology projects into smaller, more modular projects in the hopes of saving the government from getting mired in multi-million dollar failures. His solution to this, he says, is modular and incremental deployment.
While Rome was not built in a day, this initiative is long overdue, yet feasible, as technology exists to address these challenges rather quickly. After these 240 days are complete and a plan is drawn the real question is, how are we going to pay now for technology the government needed yesterday? In a perfect world, the government would select a platform for archiving and eDiscovery, break the project into incremental milestones and roll out a uniform combination of solutions that are best of breed in their expertise.