The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides grading services, market news reporting, school lunch purchase programs, and a national organic program to support U.S. producers, processors, and consumers. As a government agency, AMS needs to satisfy legal obligations concerning storage and discovery of its electronic business documents. AMS selected Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 as the foundation for an AMS enterprise records management system. With the solution, AMS employees file business documents as official records using familiar Microsoft Office programs. Records cannot be altered or deleted, and AMS records managers manage retention policies. The solution takes advantage of the existing infrastructure, which helps AMS minimize IT expenses and keep its service fees as low as possible for America’s agricultural producers.Situation
A primary objective of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is to facilitate domestic and international marketing of U.S. agricultural products. To this end, the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) administers programs that focus on the orderly marketing of agricultural commodities to help ensure high-quality food, promote agricultural trade and production, and achieve the best possible returns for U.S. farmers and ranchers. AMS is responsible for familiar programs such as beef grading, USDA organic product certification, and the well-known “Milk Mustache” promotion. The organization also administers programs such as the AMS Market News service, which provides up-to-date and unbiased price and product volume information to help farmers and ranchers determine when to move their products into the nation’s supply chain. AMS is based in Washington, D.C., and has approximately 2,000 full-time employees.
AMS is a federal government agency, and, as such, it is subject to a high degree of regulatory oversight concerning the way it stores and manages its official email messages and business documents. AMS uses an email archive system that provides electronic discovery (e-discovery) and other regulatory compliance capabilities in the event that it must furnish email-based information for civil litigation cases. However, the organization did not have the same capabilities for managing its business documents.
AMS employees, who work with agricultural producers, industry trade groups, and consumers to develop and implement USDA programs and policies, create hundreds of electronic files each week. These files include Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations. The files contain key information and document how the organization arrives at its many critical business decisions. AMS did not have the capability to designate electronic documents as official records, locate them easily, apply retention schedules, or place legal holds on them.
||We created the Records Center using our existing investments … and minimal programming resources. SharePoint Server 2010 helps us manage our costs wisely and keep our fees as low as possible.
Chief Information Officer, Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture
Employees could create a paper copy of a document and file it as an official record, but, adds Doug Bailey, Chief Information Offer of the Agricultural Marketing Service at the USDA, “The hard copy could not be readily accessed or used by others. And, it’s difficult to keep track of hard copies and ensure that they are maintained or purged as required.” Further, the organization did not have thorough management of the electronic files that were stored on the hard drives of employees’ PCs. “The agency has a responsibility to preserve any document that could be pertinent to a legal proceeding, and, therefore, we must provide a level of security and forensic integrity over our business documents. This requires a sophisticated document management system. Simply having a file out on a shared file server doesn't meet the requirements of organized electronic discovery,” explains Bailey.
AMS wanted to implement such a system, but it was challenged by financial constraints. More than 60 percent of the work that the organization does is with producers, processors, and exporters who voluntarily engage in AMS programs and pay for the services they receive. To keep its fees as low as possible, the organization strives to minimize its operating expenses. Says Bailey, “Most agricultural producers operate on narrow margins. Any cost they incur as they certify their products into the supply chain erodes these margins. We can’t just go out and buy an expensive document management system. We have to control our expenses very carefully to provide high-value services for the agricultural community.”
AMS sought a cost-efficient, easy-to-use solution for enterprisewide electronic records management. It believed that rather than invest in a costly, stand-alone records management system, which would require extensive training and users to switch to a different program to manage records, the better approach would be to build records management capabilities into its existing environment. “We were looking for a toolset we could add to what we had, rather than invest in an entirely new environment,” explains Bailey.Solution
AMS relied on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 for its corporate intranet and its business-partner extranet, and it considered adding custom capabilities to its Office SharePoint Server 2007 environment to enable records management. Then, in late 2009, AMS evaluated Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 and found that it offered, out-of-the-box, many of the records management capabilities AMS needed, including retention policies, legal holds, and managed metadata for tagging records. “Upgrading to the newer version made sense because SharePoint Server is already very popular with our business users. We wanted to take advantage of this,” says Robert Fiduk, Division Director of the Enterprise Application Services and Chief Technical Officer at USDA AMS.
Further, AMS could capitalize on its developers’ existing expertise in Microsoft technologies, including the Microsoft .NET Framework and Microsoft ASP.NET. The solution also offered excellent integration with the Microsoft Office desktop productivity applications that AMS employees use every day. “SharePoint Server 2010 was a natural fit. It was the easy-to-use, low-cost solution we were looking for,” says Bailey. AMS also liked the fact that SharePoint Server 2010 provides records management capabilities in a context of collaboration. “The system would allow us to not only preserve content electronically, but also make the content easily discoverable and readily available across the community to inform our business decisions,” Bailey adds.AMS Electronic Records Center
In late 2009, with help from Microsoft, AMS began to develop an enterprise records management solution on a prerelease version of SharePoint Server 2010. “Microsoft was extremely helpful,” says Bailey. “We saw right away that we could build a highly reliable, sound technical solution on the SharePoint Server platform.”
Using the solution, employees submit Microsoft Word documents, Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations directly from the program they are working in to a repository within SharePoint Server 2010 called the AMS Electronic Records Center. While the solution is compatible with the Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007 programs AMS was using, the organization also decided to upgrade to Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2010 as part of the project. Employees can also submit PDF files as records. Records are managed in accordance with key requirements established by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and are safeguarded from alteration or premature deletion.Customized Ribbon for Submitting Records
AMS used out-of-the-box SharePoint Server 2010 records management capabilities, and also customized several key components, to create the AMS Electronic Records Center. “The introduction of the service application architecture and the ability to interact with SharePoint sites using scripts really improves the scalability and ease of development in SharePoint Server 2010,” says Fariba Tacoukjou, Senior Developer, Enterprise Applications and Databases at USDA AMS.
An AMS developer used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Ultimate development system and Microsoft SharePoint Designer 2010 to create a Records Management tab in the Ribbon, which is part of the Microsoft Office Fluent user interface (see Figure 1). Using this tab, employees can easily designate files as records and submit them to the Electronic Records Center directly from Microsoft Office programs.
|Figure 1. Customized Ribbon for submitting files as records.|
To create a record, the user clicks on the Records Management tab, and uses drop-down menus and text-entry boxes to provide descriptive information for the record (which is applied as metadata tags) to indicate categorization details, audience, keywords for search, author, and title. Then, the user clicks a File as Record button, and the record is then transmitted to the Electronic Records Center.
The Ribbon invokes a web service, which AMS also customized, “to send and receive information between SharePoint Server 2010 and Microsoft Office,” explains Tacoukjou. “This communication enables us to keep a list of appropriate records categories in the Electronic Records Center, and automatically provide these options to the users, through the Records Management tab.”
To maintain a continuous look and feel, AMS used configurable Web Parts in SharePoint Server 2010 to create a similarly styled, web-based interface that offers the Records Management tab functionality, and from which users can submit PDF files to the Electronic Records Center.
Record Categorization, Retention, Permissions
AMS includes nine program areas (such as Dairy, Cotton and Tobacco, and Fruits and Vegetables) and additional support units (such as IT Services). Typically, records created within a program area are used the most by other employees within that program. In the AMS Electronic Records Center, there is a SharePoint site for each program, and each site (and the records it contains) is managed by a designated records administrator within the program. The metadata information that an employee enters is used to automatically route the record to the appropriate site, and then to more detailed category folders for the type of document within the site, such as general correspondence, activity reports, or presentations. The authority for these category folders corresponds to record schedule categories established by NARA.
AMS created a security feature to validate each user’s credentials, through the Records Management tab, against credentials stored in Active Directory Domain Services. Once validated, the tab is prepopulated with information about the user. “Microsoft Office pulls data about the user, including which program area or unit they are from and what level of access they have,” explains Tacoukjou. “It allows the user to file records in the appropriate site and category.” This security feature is also invoked when a user accesses records through the web-based Electronic Records Center interface in SharePoint Server 2010 (see Figure 2). For instance, a record can be set to be seen only by members of a particular branch within an AMS program area (for instance, Enterprise Application Service is a branch of the ITS unit), the entire program area, or the entire AMS organization.
|Figure 2. AMS Electronic Records Center for the IT Services (ITS) unit.|
When a record is created, retention policies are applied to the record. Non-permanent records are automatically tagged for expiration according to these policies—for instance, upon the close of a court case, or after a specified amount of time has passed after the end of a fiscal year. Legal holds can be placed on any record, which supersedes the retention policy so that the record cannot be purged until the legal hold is released. AMS also customized a records reporting system so that administrators can easily see all records under their purview and determine if any information is missing. For example, periodically, each record administrator receives an automated email message that contains a list of records that have been filed without sufficient information regarding the retention period. The administrator can then enter the required information into the system.
AMS uses enterprise search in SharePoint Server 2010 to allow users to search for records across AMS sites. However, the search results that are returned only display records that the user has permission to access. Users can search by subject, title, record category, or audience (such as branch, program area, or agency). SharePoint Server 2010 also allows AMS to assign each record a unique identifier, an ID number that always stays attached to the document, and can be used to locate the document through search no matter where the document is located. When an employee accesses a record from the Electronic Records Center, it opens as a read-only file and can be printed or saved as a copy to the employee’s local hard drive. Enterprise Solution
The AMS Electronic Records Center operates in a virtualized environment, on three physical servers running the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system. SharePoint Server 2010 runs on these servers. Two are dedicated front-end web servers, and the third functions as the search and indexing server. A fourth server, which runs the Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Enterprise data management software, functions as the database for the Electronic Records Center. AMS is implementing disaster recovery capabilities between its Washington, D.C., data center and its Denver, Colorado, data center. AMS also relies on Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2 to manage and monitor the health of its SharePoint Server environment to ensure top performance and availability.
Currently, the solution is in a pilot phase with employees in AMS IT Services and the Dairy program. “We are working on final refinements to the folder taxonomy before rolling out to a broader audience,” says Bailey. AMS plans to deploy the solution to all employees by late 2011. “Soon, the Electronic Records Center will be available across all of AMS,” says Bailey. “We’ve also seen high interest among other USDA agencies. As soon as we complete the deployment here, we will make the solution freely available to all agencies in USDA.”Benefits
Using Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, AMS created an enterprise records management system that is easy-to-use and ensures that the organization meets regulatory compliance requirements. To create the solution, AMS took advantage of existing infrastructure and in-house expertise, which resulted in significant cost avoidance, helping the organization keep its fees to its constituents as low as possible.
Familiar, Easy-to-Use System Encourages Adoption
AMS extended its SharePoint Server environment, and connected it to Microsoft Office programs, to enable enterprisewide records management. The result is a familiar, easy-to-use system that allows employees to create records and submit them to the Electronic Records Center without leaving the program in which they are working. “One of the biggest obstacles to implementing records management is that you often have to ask users to get accustomed to a different interface, with unfamiliar icons and commands, and to leave the environment in which they are authoring a document, or working on a spreadsheet or presentation. SharePoint Server 2010 removes this obstacle,” says Bailey. “No matter which Microsoft Office program they are in, the Electronic Records Center is just a click away.”
||Simply having a file out on a shared file server doesn't meet the requirements of organized electronic discovery.
Chief Information Officer, Agricultural Marketing Service, United States Department of Agriculture
AMS expects a rapid uptake among employees, due to the system’s ease-of-use. “An employee just has to click on the Records Management tab, enter the appropriate metadata, and submit the record. With SharePoint Server 2010, our employees have a convenient tool that lets them do their jobs as custodians of information for the government,” says Bailey.Ensures Regulatory Compliance
Previously, AMS ensured that it met regulatory compliance requirements for email retention and e-discovery, but it did not have a system in place by which it could help ensure the same management of its business documents. “We were relying on employees to preserve content on their hard drives, and that resulted in too many vulnerabilities,” says Bailey. “We needed to have the same control over our electronic documents that we had over our email messages.”
The AMS Electronic Records Center provides sophisticated but easy-to-use methods with which to tag, file, store, retain, purge, and search official business records. “With SharePoint Server 2010, we can ensure that AMS meets regulatory compliance requirements for e-discovery. We can control how business documents that may be relevant to legal proceedings are managed and retained. And we have great insight into the history of each document,” says Bailey.
Reduces Costs for USDA, Helps Keep Services Affordable for Producers
As a federal government agency, USDA is accountable to its constituents—including, importantly, the producers and suppliers who pay AMS for marketing services that enable them to certify and trade their products across the domestic and international food supply chain. “The pressure is on us, as a government agency, to make services affordable for our clients,” says Bailey. “When we purchase and implement new systems, our costs increase, and we have to recoup these costs by charging higher fees for our services.”
To forestall fee increases for agency customers, AMS took a cost-efficient approach to records management by upgrading a technology that already existed in its environment. In addition to lower implementation costs, it was able to use in-house development expertise rather than to retrain or hire new developers. Because of this, it only took the agency four months to develop and deploy the solution. “We created the Records Center using our existing investments in Microsoft infrastructure and minimal programming resources,” says Bailey. “SharePoint Server 2010 helps us manage our costs wisely and keep our fees as low as possible.”
Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010
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