NARA's plan: More rhetorical vision than working strategy

Now is the time for all good people to tell the National Archives and Records Administration how to get its act together. NARA recently issued an ambitious, 10-year strategic plan (available at http://www.nara.gov)

titled "Ready Access to Essential Evidence" and is seeking feedback on the plan from the public.

NARA is in an unenviable plight. Just the cost of space to store the government's paper records will eat up nearly half the agency's 1997 budget. Those costs continue to grow, and in a perverse twist of fate, government downsizing only exacerbates the problem. NARA's plan states: "As agencies streamline, programs end and military bases close, all their records are winding up on our doorstep." Smaller government seems to mean bigger records caches.

NARA suffers from being caught in the middle of the national transition from paper-based to electronic-based information. Agencies complain about extremely slow service in getting NARA to take their records. NARA continues to operate in an essentially passive mode, sitting and waiting for agencies to bring records, moaning and groaning under the records avalanche that grows every year. The agency cannot keep up with its archival functions, and no one seems to be paying enough attention to the critical need for authoritative guidance on managing the government's active records.

A key element of NARA's plan is the notion of intervening at the beginning of a record's life cycle. "In our vision, rec-ords would be appraised once, at the front end of the life cycle." When agencies design an information system, they would incorporate records management into the design, deciding at the outset how to care for, and ultimately dispose of, the records created in the system throughout its life.

Part of what this means is that NARA wants a qualified records manager assigned to every major information system design team. The idea that records management should be an integral part of information system design has been bandied about for a long time.

And if we're serious about the Information Technology Management Reform Act as well as the Government Performance and Results Act, now is a good time to get serious about federal records management.

To my way of thinking, there's nothing mysterious about how to put the front-loading idea into action. Given the five-year information technology planning process instituted by the Paperwork Reduction Act and the requirement to include IT investments in annual budget projections, agencies plainly advertise their intentions when they set out to create new information systems. All NARA needs to do is stay alert to the wealth of public information about government IT systems and then contact agencies with reminders and offers of assistance whenever the agencies embark on new system design. Presto! NARA will have intervened at the record life cycle's front end.

I think NARA is the victim of a deeper problem in the realm of federal record keeping. The problem is that most agencies are running parallel and duplicate records systems, one on paper and one electronic. The majority of records are now created electronically, yet agencies almost universally print out the electronic record and save the paper version as the record copy. Both paper and electronic versions get sent to NARA, so the agency ends up choked with work and spends half its resources on space. Unless agencies grow robust electronic records policies and procedures and greatly diminish paper rec-ords, NARA will continue to be overwhelmed.

My two cents' worth of opinion about NARA's strategic plan is that it's not a strategic plan at all but a rhetorical vision, not a blueprint for getting from Point A to Point B but a new suit of emperor's clothes. The clothes are indeed stylish and the rhetoric ringing, but I come away with no clear idea of how NARA will behave differently in the future. With so much going on in the archival field, I feel I'm watching a tiny group of people talking to one another and paying little attention to what goes on outside their circle.

I attended one of NARA's recent outreach sessions and sat mesmerized while Archivist John Carlin spun out the new NARA tale. Carlin is unquestionably a public relations bonanza for NARA - smart, articulate, likable, involved and very fast on his feet. I agreed with Carlin's observation that the archivist does not need new statutory powers; he's got plenty already that aren't being fully used.

Perhaps the most optimistic characterization of NARA's strategic plan is that it is a report on Carlin's learning processes. He understands the agency's problems now; with his dynamic leadership, NARA may indeed come close to realizing its new vision.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net. This column can be read on Federal Computer Week's home page at http://www.fcw.com.

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