About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the E-Records Forum, Austin, Texas.

Event sponsored by NARA’s Southwest Regional Archives.

April 20, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero

David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

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What's an Archivist?

The Archivist was introduced by Preston Huff, Southwest regional administrator.

Thank you, Preston, for that kind introduction.

It’s a pleasure today to gather with all of you who are concerned with one of the greatest challenges we in Government face: How to manage, preserve, and make accessible the vast volumes of electronic records being created across government today.

At the National Archives, we’ve been working on this for a number of years, and other speakers here today will discuss in detail the progress we’ve made with our Electronic Records Archives, or ERA But now I want to step back and look at the Big Picture.

As you all know, President Obama late last year issued a directive on Open Government. It calls on those of us in Government to create a culture of transparency, participation, and collaboration in and among federal agencies.

The goal— Transforming the relationship between the government and the people.

But it has other aims, too, as the President said in announcing his Open Government Initiative last year:

"Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government." I want to talk about the National Archives’ Open Government plan, but first we need to talk about records—and records management. That’s because the preservation and management of records is key to the success of the Open Government Initiative.

* * *

Records are important. No argument there!

Open government, accountable to the people, requires open records, accessible to the people now—and in the years to come.


Records document the legitimacy of a government and empower citizens to hold government officials accountable for their actions.

Records ensure whatever legal standing, rights, and entitlements the citizens of a country have.

And records hold the history of the national experience, the triumphs as well as the darker chapters.

Without good records management, it is impossible for the public to know and understand what the government is doing and impossible for the present to inform the future. There can be no documentation and accountability if the Government does not preserve—and cannot find—its records.

Our Founding Fathers knew records were important, for the charges they made against King George III in the Declaration of Independence included this passage:

"He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records. . . . "

The long-term success of the Open Government Initiative hinges on the ability of each Federal agency to effectively manage its records. That’s why we work so hard at NARA to help agencies manage their records to meet their business needs and to ensure that the records of historical value are in good order when they are transferred to us.

Our role at NARA is to preserve the records that have permanent value, and we usually end up archiving about 2 to 3 percent of all the records created by government—the most important ones.

Given that records management is the backbone of Open Government—the central question is:

What is needed to ensure that the Open Government principles are realized?

  • Federal agencies need to create and manage economically and effectively the records necessary to meet their business needs.
  • They need to maintain records long enough, and in a useable format, to protect citizen rights and assure government accountability.
  • And they need to ensure that records of archival value are preserved and made available for generations to come.

Heads of agencies and senior leaders across the Federal Government need to understand that the records and information they and their organizations are creating today—as I speak—are national assets that must be effectively managed and secured.

For starters, it is required by law in the Federal Records Act. But effective records management—adequate and proper documentation of the Federal Government’s activities and transactions—is good government and a necessary condition of an Open Government.

After all, how can government agencies accomplish their mission without records?

It is our experience that departments and agencies do a good job of documenting actions such as awarding grants, waging litigation, and making contracts. But documenting high level policy decisions is much more problematic.

It is up to each agency to ensure that the records of high level decisions and policy debates are documented and preserved—not only for open government, accountability, and institutional knowledge, but also for the historical record of this and every Administration and of our nation.

* * *

Today, the records being created are electronic records, and they pose different problems and challenges. The Federal Government spends more than $80 Billion annually on information technology. Most —if not all—of the IT systems create or receive Federal records in some form.

Essential to managing these electronic records is developing cost effective electronic records management tools that work—then integrating them into agency IT systems.

Today, most agencies develop IT systems without thinking about records. Then, later, they must go back and spend more money to capture, preserve, and provide access to the records. Or—the records are simply lost and cannot be used over time.

Neither option is good government.

Including records management experts in the design and development of information systems is a best practice that NARA supports. It saves agencies the time and money in searching, storing, and preserving information for Government use and for future generations.

We at NARA will focus on reclaiming our records management leadership role by finding and developing these cost-effective IT solutions needed to meet the electronic records management challenges of today and the future.

We will also take a strategic approach to digitization.

We have in our holdings more than 10 billion pages of documents as well as millions of images, maps, and charts and miles of motion picture, video and sound recordings.

We are searching for ways to step up our efforts in this massive undertaking by determining which records should get priority in digitization and how to accomplish as much digitization as possible at the least cost in the least amount of time.

We will also bring together leaders in records management and information technology to collaborate on our most pressing issues. Toward that end, NARA will be sponsoring the first combined meeting of the Chief Information Officers Council and the Records Management Committee to discuss electronic records management issues.

Another effort will be to explore the development of a series of "Archivist Awards" for the agencies that demonstrate improvement, innovation, and use of technology in their records management.

* * *

The statutory authority to grant Federal agencies disposition authority to manage their permanent and temporary records is the most important responsibility I exercise as Archivist of the United States.

That’s because it determines what records will come to the National Archives for preservation and access by future generations.

However, across government today, agencies are not doing an effective enough job managing records and other information assets. And that is some cause for concern, for it means the information could be lost forever.

Last summer, NARA required all Federal agencies to perform a self-assessment of their records management programs.

In a report released by the National Archives this week, preliminary analysis of the self-assessment data from federal agencies suggests that about four out of five reporting agencies have moderate to high levels of risk associated with their records management programs——particularly with their management of electronic records.

As we move to cloud computing, social media, and other technologies to make government work faster and more efficiently for both the public and its employees, the record keeping implications grow as well.

How will we capture this information? Again, it will take our collective energies and imagination to devise IT solutions to these problems.

* * *

As I mentioned earlier, good records management is the backbone to open government, but there is so much more. The goals of the President’s Open Government Directive are, to a great extent, already embedded in the mission statement and strategic goals of our agency. It reads:

The National Archives and Records Administration serves American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. We ensure continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. We support democracy, promote civic education, and facilitate historical understanding of our national experience.

That’s the essence of the work we do every day—rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records of their government.

Our Open Government plan goes further. It will:

  • Strengthen the culture of open government at the National Archives
  • Develop web and data services to meet our 21st Century needs.
  • Strengthen transparency at the National Archives.
  • Provide leadership and services to enable the Federal Government to meet 21st Century challenges.

All of this will involve a real change for our 75-year-old agency—not only in our processes, but also in the culture of the agency. We have the opportunity to work and communicate more efficiently and more effectively——and in completely new ways.

Our flagship initiative is to develop online services to meet our 21st Century needs.

We plan to leverage the power of the Internet to make our records more easily available. Our web site, search capabilities, digitization strategies, and our use of social media to engage the public must be able to meet these needs.

And we will improve our engagement with our own staff and with the public so they can better take advantage of the resources we have to access and make use of those records.

We will vastly improve our online capabilities in order to foster the public’s use of our records. Included in this effort will be a redesign of our public web site, www.archives.gov, to maximize public participation as well as develop streamlined search capabilities.

We intend for our entire website, as well as access to our holdings online, to be a user-focused community experience. Further, we intend to explore ways to develop our current catalog into a social catalog that allows our online users to contribute information to descriptions of our records.

In the next year, I want our agency to become a leader and innovator in all aspects of social media.

In the past year, we developed a number of successful social media projects. Now, we intend to develop a comprehensive social media strategy for the agency, which will include internal as well as external communications efforts using new media tools.

I have even launched my own blog: "AOTUS: Collector in Chief" available at blogs.archives.gov/aotus. I invite you to join me in discussing crucial challenges we face and the future of the National Archives.

We are going beyond www.archives.gov to reach users where they are. We are doing that by seeking online public engagement through social media tools like Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter. We are planning to expand our presences online by monitoring new spaces where the public may expect to hear from us or access our records.

* * *

We are seeking employee engagement through blogs, webinars and other social media tools to allow greater communication among our staff and management in 17 states and the District of Columbia.

We are publishing high value datasets on Data.gov. These raw data sets allow the public to take government information and create new interfaces or online experiences. We are eager to see what will be produced by unleashing public innovation on these datasets.

We have created an "Open Government" web page, www.archives.gov/open, that serves as the portal for open government activities at the National Archives. Our Open Government plan is available at that web address, where there is also an opportunity for the public to provide feedback.

In addition, we are providing Open Government leadership to other Federal agencies.

  • Our new Office of Government Information Services is providing services to mediate disputes between Freedom of Information Act requestors and Federal agencies, as well as offering guidance for agencies in dealing with FOIA aspects of the Open Government Directive.
  • Our new National Declassification Center has taken the leadership role in streamlining the declassification process throughout the federal government as well as eliminating the backlog of 400 million pages of classified records.

    Some of these records pertain to military operations in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War—all of which are of great interest to historians.
  • Our development of the Electronic Records Archives—the ERA—is crucial to open government because of the role it will play in the long-term preservation and access to electronic records.
  • Our Office of the Federal Register continues to provide ready access to the official text of Federal laws, Presidential documents and administrative regulations and notices.
Our staff there is creating a "Federal Register 2.0: to meet our 21st Century needs by collaborating with non-government partners to give citizens access to more government information.

* * *

The President’s Open Government Directive is an initiative I fully support. It strengthens our democracy, and it strengthens our hand in fulfilling the mission of the National Archives.

I expect the principles of Open Government to change the way we do things . . . the way we think about things. . . and the way we deliver services to the public.

Record keeping has become much more complex today, but we also owe it to future generations to find technological solutions to preserve the records of today’s government.

Together, NARA and Federal agencies will be able to find these solutions, but it will only happen with your support and the support of your counterparts across the government.

I look forward to working with all of you in opening up our government and, together, meeting the challenges that this new century presents to us.

Thank you for having me here today.