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.


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