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The U.S. Government’s Transition to All-Digital Government

New federal regulations set digitization standards for permanent records and require agencies to manage their permanent records in digital format.
Our Mission is to provide public access to Federal Government records in our custody and control. Public access to government records strengthens democracy by allowing Americans to claim their rights … Read more

By: NARA’s Electronic Records Policy and Standards Team

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the nation's record keeper. We identify, protect, preserve, and make publicly available the historically valuable records of all three branches of the federal government.

NARA is also the nation’s records manager. NARA’s Office of the Chief Records Officer for the U.S. Government leads records management throughout the federal government, with an emphasis on digital records, and assesses the effectiveness of federal records management policies and programs. Part of that work is to issue guidance to federal agencies on a wide variety of records management topics. One of NARA’s newest guidance products that will be of interest to the membership of the PDF Association is the federal regulation with digitization standards for permanent records.

This regulation is an important component of the Transition to Electronic Records Memorandum which requires that agencies manage their permanent records in digital formats and that NARA only accepts transfers of digital records after June 30, 2024. Any records that cannot be transferred to a NARA records center by that date must be digitized according to the requirements in the regulation.

The digitization standards provide detailed instructions and precise technical parameters. For example, the digitization standards contain requirements for records management, documentation, quality management, and metadata, and specify acceptable file formats and compression codecs. Furthermore, the digitization standards require agencies to validate their digital records at the end of the digitization process. Validation is the process where federal agencies formally declare that their digital records are complete, accurate, comply with the standard, and can be used for the same business purposes as the source records. When federal agencies follow these digitization standards, the digitized records become the permanent records that will eventually be transferred to NARA and agencies can use the new General Records Schedule 4.5 as the disposition authority to destroy the source records.

Of interest to this community, PDF/A, the archival subset of the PDF format, is identified as an appropriate format for textual documents but not for scans of printed photographs where NARA’s current preference is to accept transfers in only dedicated raster formats so that their EXIF and IPTC metadata elements are easily discoverable through browsing.

The new digitization regulation requires the development of workflows to ensure required image properties remain unaltered, and that descriptive and technical metadata elements are maintained and easily discoverable in the resulting PDF/A files.

The vast majority of the paper records that will be digitized were created within the last thirty years on a computer. They were “born digital” but printed out on paper to support outdated business processes such as those that require (or allow) a form that was filled out online be printed and mailed to an agency; or where documents must be signed with “wet ink” signatures. Current PDF technologies, such as the collection of data from forms and digital signatures, could be leveraged to eliminate the need to print digital records entirely.

NARA continues to work on products to help agencies, contractors, and vendors implement these digitization standards. We created a website with a variety of resources related to federal digitization, including a series of blog posts explaining the different parts of the digitization standards. These resources and the digitization standards are also available to the public. We are also making it easier for agencies to acquire the services and solutions they need to manage their electronic records. We are continuing to work with GSA to identify services and solutions that support a transition to an all-digital government, including the Electronic Records Management Solutions (518210ERM) and Document Conversion Services (518210DC) categories on GSA's Consolidated Schedule.

We hope that PDF Association members will find this post interesting and useful in the ongoing work of intelligent information management and digital transformation.

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