NARA reforms welcomed

Candidly admitting that its records management program is "out of alignment with the needs of customer agencies," the National Archives and Records Administration recently proposed a redesign of federal records management.

I applaud the proposal and the reasoning behind it, notwithstanding my belief that the same reforms could have been proposed five years ago.

NARA advances a fairly radical course. At issue is the fact that, by law, the archivist of the United States must approve the terms under which agencies decide to treat a particular set of records. These terms, known as schedules, stipulate whether records are temporary or permanent and, if temporary, how long they should be kept before being destroyed.

NARA officials have announced that they plan to narrow their focus, carefully examining only three classes of records: records that protect individual rights, ensure agency accountability and have continuing value for documenting the national experience. Everything else, it seems, will be left up to agency discretion, perhaps even automated processing.

Two facets of the proposal are especially attractive. One is the focus on the concept of risk management in records management. To my mind, it makes no sense to tell chief information officers they have a legal obligation to practice good records management. CIOs are beset with scores of legal obligations competing for priority attention, and telling them that the law obliges them to practice good records management only brings glassy stares.

On the other hand, if you convince CIOs that their agencies are in real peril if they ignore records management, then you are getting somewhere. Highlight to CIOs that their agencies could become the next Bureau of Indian Affairs, with headlines splashed across the newspapers, and they suddenly perk up. Prove that a terrorist incident tomorrow would render their agencies incapable of operating because they have not protected and backed up vital records, and perhaps CIOs will give records management a higher priority.

The second facet of NARA's proposal that I like is the emphasis on aligning with international standards.

We must learn how to overcome the enormous language barrier between records managers and information technology professionals. Both groups speak English but communicate drastically different meanings. IT professionals have great difficulty comprehending that an "e-record" in the records management sense is not just another digital file, but something that can be admitted into a court of law. So an e-record is one for which the agency can prove authenticity, reliability, integrity and usability.

As for records managers, they tend to suffer collective computer fright and long for the security blanket of paper records. We must get beyond this impasse.

NARA's reform proposal marks a solid step toward a new era in government records management, and I wish them all the best in putting it into practice.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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