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Public Records in the Public Cloud?

It seems the US Federal Government is starting to catch up with electronic records management (ERM). As you can read in this article, entitled Obama: Agency Records Must Go Digital, President Barack Obama issued a memorandum in late 2011 requiring all federal agencies to move to electronic records. I know others feel differently, but I don’t personally worry about invasion of privacy concerns. In my opinion, this is a great benefit to US citizens in keeping Washington transparent. This will also eventually cut operational costs from each agency. Also, let’s not forget the environmental savings – I haven’t a clue how many trees our paper mills eat to churn out the reams of paper needed, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.

But, wow, talk about the level of effort. President Obama’s memo gives each agency 30 days to designate a senior official to supervise this initiative and 120 days to come up with a plan of action. Having personally been involved in a few paperless initiatives myself, I can only imagine how complex this is. Furthermore, the wording makes it clear that this solution be “government wide”. Does that mean that each three-letter agency comes up with its own “government wide” system? Or must they somehow collaborate with each other to define the “one” solution? The latter seems nearly impossible, at least during my lifetime. Sure, the technology is ready, but the seemingly complete isolation in which each agency works is a Mount-Rushmore sized mountain to climb. My first guess is that each agency will build its own system and publish select records to an evolved form of NARA (the US’s current National Archives).

Another important question that arises in my mind is regarding how Washington DC will finance the overhaul. There is no doubt that the operational cost ROI will be on the order of years—where does the money to implement the plan come from? Wording in the memo suggests that the edict is “subject to the availability of appropriations.” Will agencies use lack of funding as a reason to push back on the order?

Rhetoric aside, there are some interesting possibilities here. Cloud vendors like Microsoft®, Google, and Amazon have been beefing up their infrastructure for years, and I’m sure they are salivating over the potential. Will the US government use public cloud solutions? If you had asked me a couple years ago, I would have given you a firm “No” to that question. However, over the past year in particular, I have been surprised to hear more and more about public clouds and the Federal government. If the security-conscious Department of Defense (DoD) is moving toward commercial data centers, why can’t other agencies? Could this be the start of the “government wide” system that’s really needed? For example, imagine how Amazon Web Services could help? Amazon has massive amounts of very affordable storage in S3 and EBS, and more than enough computing horsepower in EC2. These services are super developer friendly, meaning it’s not hard to interconnect them with other on-premise or cloud-based systems.

Finally, what does that mean for the Microsoft® SharePoint® farms that are well established in the Federal space? That’s equally hard to predict. This initiative is about getting paper records out of filing cabinets and into ERM systems. Will SharePoint be the initial repository? While most agree off-the-shelf SharePoint isn’t the best ERM platform, a number of third-party vendors enhance it and make it a feature- and price-competitive option. Plus, there is something to be said for having a single integrated solution for publishing, collaboration and records management. It’s all content management.

Do you have a different opinion? Let me know what you think.

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