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How to Comply with M-19-21

The U.S. federal government is about to take a big step towards digital records management.

Starting January 1, 2023, federal agencies must manage all temporary and permanent federal records and appropriate metadata electronically.  The government-wide policy is the result of a memorandum issued by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) on June 28, 2019. 

The goal of the directive is to help the federal government increase efficiency, eliminate mis-filed documents and other errors, and free up the time and space wasted storing paper documents.

The NARA M-19-21 directive also will help agencies reduce the considerable expense associated with creating, managing, and filing federal records – potentially saving taxpayers a lot of money.

While the mandate is focused on the federal agencies, businesses can glean lessons from the effort.

The importance of federal records

Created in 1934, NARA is tasked with maintaining and protecting federal records and documents.

 Today, NARA manages billions of pages of significant records, documents, charts, and photographs.  Maintaining this vast archive on behalf of the federal government requires a lot of space and labor.

 That was the driver behind the NARA M-19-21 directive.

 As part of the M-19-21 directive, NARA will no longer accept temporary or permanent paper records after 2022.  All records must be submitted digitally and tagged with the appropriate metadata.

 What is electronic records management?

Efficiently and systematically controlling the creation, receipt, maintenance, use, and disposition of records is a critical back-office function for any organization.  But it is of paramount importance to federal agencies charged with the safekeeping of temporary and permanent records of significance. 

 The federal government spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and thousands of hours annually to create, use, and store federal records in analog (paper and non-electronic) formats, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) says.  Migrating to electronic records will enable agencies to reduce the resources, management attention, and security investments spent on analog formats.  Digital records also will enable citizens to conduct business with the federal government online. 

Among businesses and government entities, the volume of incoming information has increased by 4.5x over the past two years, the Association for Intelligent Information Management (AIIM) finds.  Complicating matters for document processing pros, 57 percent of the information that organizations receive is unstructured – information that doesn’t fit neatly into the rows and columns of a database. 

 That’s why businesses – and the federal government – are moving to electronic records management.

 Digitizing temporary or permanent federal records will help ensure that they are captured, tagged, and stored accurately and efficiently.  For instance, accurately applying metadata to federal records also makes it faster and easier for users to search records, and less likely that they will be misfiled. 

 What is the NARA M-19-21 directive?

The goal of the M-19-21 directive is to speed the federal government’s move to electronic records. 

 The NARA M-19-21 directive requires that permanent federal records and appropriate metadata be created, managed, and maintained electronically.  After December 31, 2022, NARA will no longer accept transfers of permanent or temporary records in analog formats and will accept records only in electronic format and with appropriate metadata.  Beginning in 2023, federal agencies will be required to digitize permanent records in analog formats before transfer to NARA.

 The directive will fundamentally change the way that most agencies manage federal records.  Like many businesses, federal agencies historically managed most of their records as paper.   

 M-19-21 also requires federal agencies to shutter their facilities for storing paper records and transfer any inactive or temporary paper records to a federal records center or commercial storage facility. 

 The NARA directive applies to all federal agencies.

 An initial deadline for electronically managing federal records passed on December 31, 2019.  Recognizing that many agencies were unable to comply with that deadline, M-19-21 gives agencies until year’s end to manage government records and metadata entirely within a digital environment.

 Challenges complying with M-19-21

Federal agencies have been working tirelessly to comply with the NARA M-19-21 directive. 

 NARA and the OMB are assisting federal agencies in their transition to electronic records.

The first step to preparing for the mandate is to thoroughly assess your agency’s current records and document management operations.  To help agencies make informed decisions about their needs, NARA published a guide, The Criteria for Successfully Managing Permanent Electronic Records

 Federal agencies should pay close attention to several factors when performing a self-assessment: 

  •   The age of the source document. Older records may require sensitive handling procedures.
  •   The volume of source documents. Safely digitizing large volumes of documents may require agencies to employ additional manpower or source high-production document scanners.
  •   The media type. Additional steps may be required to digitize microfilm and microfiche.
  •   Indexing requirements. Each record requires metadata to help identify it.
  •   Storage. Federal agencies must understand how documents are currently filed and stored.
  •   Retention. Federal agencies must determine what will happen to records and other source documents after they are digitized – will the documents be returned, retained, or destroyed?  

If digitizing your agency’s records management operations sounds daunting, you are not alone.  Few agencies have the know-how, manpower, or financial resources to comply with the NARA directive. 

 That’s why many agencies have partnered with document automation solutions providers to assist with the digitization, distribution, and storage of temporary and permanent records and documents. 

 Some document capture solutions automatically verify that images or records comply with government standards.  And leading document scanners operate at high speeds, which makes it easy for agencies to scan and achieve the necessary image quality at scale, in the volumes that they need.

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