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Society of American Archivists article "The Presidential Transition and Its Impacts on Federal Recordkeeping"

September 2016

The inauguration of a new President means not only a new administration in the White House but also new senior staff at the various Federal agencies.

Staff across 260 agencies in the Executive branch of the Federal Government are affected by the Presidential transition. During this time of change, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) works with Federal agencies to ensure both incoming and outgoing political appointees are trained in their records management responsibilities and are properly preserving their records. Managing records is a daily activity and requires constant training and attention throughout an employee's Federal service.

While career executives and political appointees make up a small portion of the overall Federal workforce, many create and receive permanent records eventually destined for the National Archives. As of September 2014, the Office of Personnel Management reported there were 7,794 Senior Executive Service members. Of those executives, roughly 1,500 are political appointees. The high profile of these officials’ roles increases the importance of capturing, documenting, and preserving their actions.

To assist agencies with these efforts, NARA created several products that reflect changes in guidance since the last Presidential transition and new requirements codified in the 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act. Specifically, NARA updated the web publication “Documenting Your Public Service” and developed training materials and a video briefing that describes records management responsibilities of political appointees when they enter, while they work, and when they leave Federal service.

NARA has also given briefings on records management responsibilities to the Partnership for Public Service, the Assistant Secretaries for Administration and Management Roundtable, and agency records officers. Further, I have personally stressed the importance of preparing for the transition at the Senior Agency Officials for Records Management annual meeting in February 2016 and at NARA’s annual Records Management Legal Forum in May 2016.

The need to facilitate a smoother transition of administrations has grown as government has become more complex. This issue has been addressed by the past three Presidential administrations, Congress, and public interest groups. During the last months of their administrations, Presidents William Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama issued transition instructions or Executive orders. President Bush took the step in directing his chief of staff to oversee the transition, and President Obama has already done the same.

In March 2016, President Obama signed the Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 into law. This law formally established the creation of two councils, The White House Transition Coordinating Council and the Agency Transition Directors Council (ATDC). The councils work to encourage and instruct agencies on succession planning and the preparation of briefing materials in advance of the Presidential transition. The ATDC works to “ensure the Federal Government has an integrated strategy for addressing interagency challenges and responsibilities around Presidential transitions and turnover of non-career appointees.” The law designates NARA as a permanent member of the ATDC, which further helps NARA work across the Government to ensure that records are protected during administration changes.

Archives and records management take on an increased importance during transitions. The ability to capture and share knowledge is paramount to ensuring a smooth transfer of power. Federal records protect the rights and interests of the public, hold officials accountable for their actions, and document our nation's history. NARA’s mission is to protect these records and make them available to the American public. Sound records management at such critical times ensures today’s records will be available for all future generations and helps make a more perfect union.