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A Presidential Charge to Improve Federal Records Management

by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

President Barack Obama has designated the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) as one of the leading agencies in his Open Government Initiative to bring more participation, collaboration, and transparency to government.

The president has charged NARA with overseeing a major overhaul in the way government agencies keep and manage the records they create. We accept this responsibility with enthusiasm.

NARA will create a twenty-first century framework for records management involving special attention to electronic records of all kinds, as well as the transition of paper-based records into an electronic records management system. And while these activities will not be mentioned in textbooks about history and government, or grab headlines on the evening news, open access to government records is vital to democracy.

Providing access to these records allow citizens to document their rights, hold government officials accountable, and have an unbiased history of our nation–its triumphs and tragedies, the moments of pride, and moments of shame. It is crucial to not only preserve important records of government, but to responsibly manage and provide access to them as well.

Unfortunately this is not happening now. In 2010, we asked 245 federal agencies and their components to perform a self-assessment of the status of their records management program. Of the vast majority of agencies that responded, 95 percent were at a high to moderate risk of compromising the integrity, authenticity, and reliability of their records. These disturbing results reveal that many government records are at risk of being lost forever.

In his memorandum to heads of executive departments and agencies in late November, the president recognized this risk. He is requiring every agency to designate a senior official responsible for overseeing records management, thereby increasing the visibility and authority of this vital function within agencies.

A similar approach was effective in the past when managing classified records. Designating senior officials at agencies working with NARA’s Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) not only provided improved declassification procedures, but improved access to researchers and the public to formerly-classified records.

Not only does the memorandum call for departments and agencies to report to NARA on the status of its records management systems, they must do so by July 2012. Meanwhile, NARA will work with the Office of Management and Budget and the Associate Attorney General to create a new approach for records management with a focus on:

President Obama’s call for action on records management comes at a crucial time for the National Archives. NARA has moved into the operations and maintenance stage of its Electronic Records Archives, which will serve as the repository for all permanently valuable electronic records created by federal departments and agencies.

And as NARA continues making steady progress in its digitization programs–in some cases in partnership with private, non-government entities–we will not allow the twelve billion pieces of paper that document much of our past be left behind in the wake of the country’s digital future.

Effectively managing these records is crucial to President Obama’s Open Government Initiative. Not only does the president’s charge explicitly engage the National Archives and Records Administration in a major federal project since the Truman years, the Open Government Initiative will allow the federal government to better preserve and protect–and manage well–the records that are the backbone of our democracy. As the nation’s record keeper, this is what NARA is all about.

About the Archivist

David S. Ferriero is the 10th Archivist of the United States. Prior to his confirmation on November 6, 2009, Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries.