FCW Forum | Records management

A new kind of record-keeper

The next National Archivist could fix decades of problems in digital management

Federal records management has been in a sorry state for decades. But President Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to put federal government record-keeping back on its rightful track.

Allen Weinstein’s resignation from the position of Archivist of the United States means that Obama can appoint a person to break out of the old box and bring real innovation to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

Records management has the problems it does because of the low priority it typically gets. Records officers have low status, and records management programs generally get meager funding. Records management disasters occur regularly, make headlines briefly and then fade from view without serious remedial action. Agency heads and the officials beneath them often ignore the execution of laws and regulations pertaining to records, considering the regulations of little importance.

NARA is central to this governmental catastrophe.

NARA manages only the permanent records that agencies transfer to it. It has no involvement in, and is largely unaware of, how agencies create and use temporary and permanent records in their day-to-day activities.

Everyone hopes Obama will choose a new archivist with distinguished credentials in history and archives; I plead also for one with management expertise.

NARA is a poorly run agency, with feudalistic micromanagement rigidly controlled from the top. The situation cries out for someone with management skills who can jar the agency out of its complacent and traditionalistic way of doing business.

We need an archivist who is concerned about the quality of federal records, whether on paper or in electronic form. What does it matter if NARA efficiently manages archives when the records that agencies provide are shoddy and incomplete? We need an archivist who reaches out to fellow agency heads to stress the importance of keeping good records because sound records management is intrinsic to good government.

The archivist should listen to the agencies that are improving their records management efforts to understand how the field is changing. NARA does not lead in records management innovation. Rather, it follows — slowly — the creative thinking and actions occurring in the pockets of government where some individuals believe records are important.

The government also needs an archivist who can deal with records in a world of enterprise content management with collaboration spaces, blogs, wikis, dynamic Web applications, and a president who uses a BlackBerry. Electronic records pose new challenges that laws written for paper documents don’t address well.

I hope the president will name an archivist who will broaden and deepen open access to records and who will aggressively start to declassify the millions of needlessly classified documents from the Bush administration and many preceding it.

As 9/11 Commission member Richard Ben-Veniste said when the report on World War II Nazi and Japanese war crimes was released in 2007, “the right to know should trump the impulse to withhold, except in truly justifiable circumstances.”

About the Author

Tim Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Wed, Feb 18, 2009 Bette Fugitt Fredericksburg

I agree with Dr. Sprehe. I hope that the next National Archivist will endorse a minimal set of metadata for tagging Federal information; require a correlation of record categories to the Business Reference Models of the Federal Enterprise Architecture; and provide the example by providing that correlation for each of the topics in the General Records Schedule. The next step would be clear terminology identifying the differences among working papers, reference material, and record. By tagging all of its electronic information and putting the information into business context, an organization can track actual use patterns based upon topic, and make sensible business decisions for the elimination of working papers and reference material that currently clogs information systems. Further, this would facilitate the search process by putting content into context. In most cases, an end user has to open an item to identify its context and business value.

Fri, Feb 6, 2009 George Moore Tulsa

RE: "NARA is unaware of how agencies create and Use Records". Even the Agencies have problems here. They need to go back to the Records Act to begin to re-define what a record is. ISO got it right, but only since the beginning of this millenium. Once we know our records, we can know our business! Most don't.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group