Editorial: Making records matter

Outside the small community of records managers, there are few people who enjoy dealing with records. For most agencies, the entire records management process is more painful than productive.

Why is this true? Because, in most cases, those on the front lines don't understand why maintaining records is important.

There is a law that says they are important, but given agencies' limited resources, maintaining records often doesn't make the cut. And there is the concept of keeping tabs on the history of the government by maintaining records, but that is a theoretical idea that seems easy to put on a back burner given the competing priorities.

However, the FBI has learned its lessons about records management the hard way. The bureau has had two clear examples of the chaos that can arise when an agency does not create an effective process for managing records. FBI insiders remember the problems that surrounded the Oklahoma City bombing case against Timothy McVeigh, in which documents were misplaced. Even more troublesome was the case of Robert Hanssen, the FBI counterintelligence officer who was able to access documents and spy for the Soviet Union for years.

So the FBI has learned that neglecting records can result in a good deal of pain. Now officials may have found a way to make records management productive — by making it beneficial to agents fighting crime and terrorism.

Records management officials have proclaimed that the way for records management systems to truly work is to make them beneficial for those working on the front lines — in this case, FBI agents. Bureau officials deserve credit for making that connection and trying to put the principle into practice.

They appear to be taking this effort seriously. They have increased the size and scope of the FBI's records management office and hired records management experts.

FBI officials still have a difficult task ahead of them, but if they are able to demonstrate how it worked at the bureau, perhaps other agencies will make a similar commitment so the process of handling records can be a pleasant, productive experience for agencies.

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