Editorial: Bridging the chasm

Federal Computer Week covers many stories that demonstrate communication problems among techies and program officials responsible for records management, financial management and enterprise architecture, for example.

In each of those cases, technologists who are information technology experts try to work with their counterparts who have expertise in those program areas. But as in the Tower of Babel, people are unable to talk to one another because they speak different languages. To some extent, the two sides live on different planes of existence.

The chasm between technologists and records managers has a long history. It's not surprising, though, because technologists are interested in the latest and greatest and often focus on creating products that make users' lives easier. Records managers and archivists are interested in preservation, a duty IT makes extremely difficult. As challenging as it is to open a 5-year-old DOS XyWrite document today, imagine trying to open that document in 50 or 100 years.

Sometimes the chasm separating the two parties can seem even bigger. The National Archives and Records Administration has the unenviable task of devising a way to deal with all those electronic documents and maintain them so that they will be useful to future generations.

To help them do this, NARA officials posted a Federal Register notice earlier this month about the destruction of Clinton-era backup tapes. That notice should have made perfect sense to NARA officials — although that is in question, too — but it wreaked havoc on the other planes of existence.

"This is not material that should be destroyed. [The notice] is so poorly written," said Scott Armstrong, a journalist who has become something of a records management guru. He has been a powerful advocate for making government more transparent and open to the public, and records are an essential part of an open government.

NARA officials have acknowledged that the notice was not their finest work. But it illustrates the larger problem — a fundamental lack of communication. The best solution is enabling people to move beyond their cliques so they can begin understanding their counterparts.

Records are important, and IT clearly isn't going away. So it is critically important we find a way to bridge the chasm.

— Christopher J. Dorobek

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