Saving the future now

BY Rick Barry
June 2, 2003

Nearly everyone knows documents are increasingly "born digital" and often are never even used in paper form. But not everyone realizes that digital documents constitute public records.

Some of those records are only trivial in value, while others may be needed for a few years. But a very small portion is of enduring value, important to the "life of the Republic." Judgments about which records are trivial and which are substantive are critical.

Serious human rights and public accountability issues are at stake for the government and the public. Indeed, Eduard Mark, an Air Force historian, wrote in an April 24 online discussion with other historians that the system to maintain federal records has "collapsed utterly."

"It will be impossible," he continued, "to write the history of recent diplomatic and military history as we have written about World War II. Too many records are gone, and with [them] public accountability of government and rational public administration."

The National Archives and Records Administration and other federal agencies face growing difficulties keeping up with the escalating creation of electronic records word-processed documents, presentation slides, e-mail messaging, Web sites and other newer forms of electronic records because traditional processes, technologies and skills for maintaining paper records are inadequate.

NARA is addressing this crisis on several levels, particularly in its 2002 Redesign of Federal Records Management proposal and its Electronic Records Archives program.

NARA's initiatives face considerable challenge individually, but the even greater task will be to integrate those programs. In addition, the lack of public and executive attention to records and recordkeeping, an unwillingness to commit necessary resources money, skills, training and technology and the need to overcome entrenched organizational cultures also threaten records preservation.

A recent survey revealed that records managers believe that agency heads, legislators, journalists, auditors, lawyers and historians need and use records. Yet those same managers do little to publicly foster support for sound recordkeeping practices.

NARA cannot overcome such complex issues alone. Other agencies and Congress must do some of the heavy lifting. NARA's bold Redesign of Federal Records Management proposal would overhaul practices underpinning federal recordkeeping practices derived from a paper-based paradigm developed at the time of the Archives' creation in 1934. According to deputy archivist Lewis Bellardo, NARA is moving ahead with plans to implement the proposal.

The implications are far-reaching. If implemented, the practices could change how and when records are captured and transferred to NARA, how they reflect core agency business aims and how they are appraised for long-term disposition, as well as the meaning and accessibility of records designated as permanent and how records can better serve public policy-makers.

The example of record transfer illustrates the potential impact of the new plan. For decades, agencies have transferred archival records to NARA 30 years after the documents are produced. Some get lost or mutilated along the way.

Under NARA's redesigned plan and new standard, agencies would transfer records at the time of their creation to NARA or a temporary or permanent NARA-certified, agency-level digital archive.

NARA also would shift from its 30-years-after-the-fact practice to a top-down, agency triage approach based on risk factors such as accountability or the extent to which records relate to human rights concerns. This strategy would help determine how much attention NARA should pay to different agencies.

Where agency recordkeeping is found lacking, NARA would provide technical assistance. This is an excellent approach but it requires a major refocusing of NARA's work. NARA also may need sharper teeth for the new role.

The shift also represents a turnaround for some NARA professionals, who in the past have been less than enthusiastic about taking early physical custody of agency records because that would entail handling Freedom of Information Act requests. This is a logical point. The relationships between recordkeeping, security downgrading and FOIA management need to be revisited.

At least at the top, NARA has strong incentives to redesign. The organization has begun the process, but it isn't clear to what extent the bulk of NARA staff or the subjects of NARA's mandate are excited or if they even have it on their radar screens.

Barry is a principal of Barry Associates in Arlington, Va. He has worked as a consultant for several national archivists, including NARA.

Record challenges

BY Rick Barry
June 9, 2003

The National Archives and Records Administration has taken strides to deal with electronic archives, an effort I discussed in a column last week. An important part of this redesign effort is the Electronic Records Archives program, which NARA will use to manage paperless records.

The ERA program has significant technological implications and challenges. In terms of complexity and cost, it is undoubtedly the largest system NARA has ever acquired, and when completed it will be one of the most complex information management systems anywhere.

The system will capture, preserve and maintain control of and ready access to records deemed to be of continuing value and interest to "the life of the Republic." This will be done in a way that will retain the records' integrity and protect them from natural and man-made disasters, such as what happened to the Iraq national archives April 14. Without such a multiyear investment, we will continue to lose at an ever-increasing rate records of public, historical and cultural importance. But more than money is needed.

Beyond the technical issues, NARA faces organizational and personnel problems. The agency must ensure the adequate experience levels, numbers and mix of skills not only in its new information technology positions, but also in its computer science, information and content management, business systems analysis, large-scale procurement, communications and organization-change management, training and project management staffs.

All of those disciplines will be needed in addition to the traditional archival, records management, conservation and preservation personnel who are NARA's great strengths. Correctly positioned and distributed within a redesigned organizational structure, those groups will be managed by the best of the best.

What priorities will NARA choose to build ERA? Will it perform the easiest, most valuable or highest risk tasks first or attack them all at once?

NARA might well consider employing the services of former senior systems acquisition and project managers from the Pentagon, or even outsourcing this function to the Defense Department, which has considerable in-house experience and a long history of working on projects of this scale. Then again, NARA has a capable systems acquisition staff, some of whom have DOD experience. Whatever approach it chooses, NARA must ensure that the team selected has the depth, quality and experience to carry out what, by any standard, will be a very large acquisition.

The system also faces major technological hurdles. Today some of the most important decision-support documents are in the form of multimedia computer slide presentations and spreadsheets, which have assumptions embedded within the electronic version that are not easily amenable for printing out. The problems related to saving such important types of records are typically not addressed, and so the records are lost.

Other relatively new technologies that are already producing enormous amounts of uncaptured records are e-mail, videoconferences, Web sites, and call centers and other "customer-facing" audio systems, while Web log, instant messaging and geographic information system technologies are emerging as potentially large producers of records. Documents produced using such tools must be maintained in an integrated fashion retaining their mutual context.

The Office of Management and Budget called for the implementation of e-government, citizen-centric solutions and the massive enterprise resource planning systems used to integrate disorganized, duplicative, stovepipe financial and human resource systems. These record-making systems are not recordkeeping systems.

One solution for at least some types of records, though not without its own problems, is the migration approach employed in the persistent archives project that NARA, the San Diego Super Computer Project and the University of Maryland are jointly testing. Some believe that migration is a nonstarter and favor emulating original platforms, such as the ones IBM Corp. is researching. Still, something totally new could emerge from the pack.

NARA's challenge will be to fashion solutions that are adaptive to uncertain future technologies and to ensure that all federal agencies are using the same choir book, if not the same song sheet.

NARA understands the problems better than anyone. Its practice redesign and ERA program are crucial not only for our federal records system, but also for state and local governments and business, because they face similar issues and few have the will and resources to fashion long-term solutions themselves. It is essential that the president, Cabinet members and members of Congress provide NARA with the tools necessary to get it right and that NARA uses them wisely.

Barry is a principal of Barry Associates in Arlington, Va. He has worked as a consultant for several national archives, including NARA.