McMillen is at home in history

NARA's first public liaison strives for candor, openness with the institution's constituents

David McMillen has his dream job, as external affairs liaison at the National Archives and Records Administration. But if the position sounds a little ill-defined, that’s because it is, he said.

NARA, guided by archivist Allen Weinstein, created the senior-level post to foster candor among agency officials, historians, professional records managers and others interested in preserving records. Weinstein tapped McMillen to fulfill that goal.

Before his appointment, McMillen served for a decade as a staffer for the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees NARA. “My colleagues on the Hill always used to make fun of me,” he said. McMillen would spice up committee reports by adding paragraphs about the 1790 census or the Bill of Rights. “My staff director would cross them out and say, ‘Get to the point.’”

Now McMillen’s job is to understand NARA and the people who use the national archives and to cement the relationship between the two.

There are some ground rules. McMillen’s role is to advise Weinstein on decisions that require balancing legislative, executive branch and nonprofit research interests. “My job is to understand where they are coming from,” he said.

NARA’s constituents need someone they can talk to about problems managing electronic records, he said. “You only have to realize that Arthur Andersen as a corporation no longer exists because of its records policy. That suddenly puts it in a different perspective,” he added.

As external affairs liaison, McMillen said he will have to stand on the sidelines on many controversial issues. “I hope to be involved with how the agency confronts those challenges, instead of in the line of fire,” he said.

McMillen said he would love to see every agency have an online system for tracking Freedom of Information Act requests. It ought to be as easy to track a FOIA request as it is to track a FedEx package, he said. But for many agencies, he added, spending money to build a tracking system would mean less money to answer the public’s requests for government information.

McMillen said he understands how technology advances all disciplines, partly because he has dabbled in many of them. “I’ve always been a fan of how computers can make many jobs easier and free you up to do other stuff,” he said.

He entered public service as a Census Bureau demographer and statistician after pursuing a doctorate in applied social statistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In addition to being an expert in the sciences, he has a strong interest in literary disciplines, having earned a master’s degree in literature and linguistics from Carnegie Mellon University. He studied history as an undergraduate at West Liberty State College in West Virginia.

His varied background has given McMillen a facility for translating complex technical language into plain English, according to former co-workers who said they miss McMillen’s encyclopedic knowledge.

“The thing that was always just so fantastic about Dave is that he knew the issue and could set things in historical context,” said Phil Barnett, staff director and chief counsel for the House Government Reform Committee’s minority staff.

Former colleagues said McMillen could relate what is happening today with the census, open government and official records to what took place in the nation’s early years. “There was no one in Congress, for sure, who had the depth of knowledge that David had on these issues,” Barnett said.

Now McMillen is in a position to apply his historical insights to the contemporary challenges of digitizing the census, creating open government and preserving digital records for the people who care most deeply about those issues: genealogists, technologists, veterans, information policy experts, historians and others.

“For me to look back and say that I was successful at this job would be for there to be an ongoing, open, trusting dialogue amongst all of these parties,” he said.

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