At a hearing today on Capitol Hill, members of Congress focused on the increasing need for the National Archives and Records Administration to have a leader who understands electronic records management and declassification of records.
The Information Policy, Census and National Archives Subcommittee held an oversight hearing on the Archives. Several leaders in the open government community testified. Acting Archivist Adrienne Thomas herself declined the committee’s invitation to testify.
In a discussion on Thomas’s replacement, Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org said: “We need an archivist who will lead the government to meet the new challenges of managing and preserving electronic records, including e-mails. Records management must not be about cleaning up messes after they occur, but, rather taking the proactive steps necessary to prevent the loss of our documentary record.”
McDermott, along with National Security Archive general counsel Meredith Fuchs, told the subcommittee that the Archives increasingly focused on being a museum for visitors rather than a place where citizens can access records.
Fuchs also criticized the Archives for not embracing technology better.
“Thousands of records have been digitized and reviewed . . . at the presidential libraries," she said, "but none of those records are available online to the public. As a result, public access to those very important records in paper form depends on significant staff time and facility space."
There seemed to be broad support among the panelists and the subcommittee members for a national declassification center, which would ease the Archives’ backlog of declassifying historical documents.
The new Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) also received some attention. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Cal.) questioned whether the Justice Department might be more suited to the task of resolving disputes between Freedom of Information Act requesters and agencies.
Fuchs and McDermott disagreed with that suggestion, saying the Archives appears ready to take on the task. They also noted that housing OGIS at Justice would present a conflict of interest, because Justice represents the government in FOIA cases.
McDermott also focused on the need for OGIS to have enough money in its budget so that it is not dependent on staff loaned from the Justice Department.
Still, the panelists expressed the hope that the Archives would do a better job on electronic records management by working with the Obama administration’s staff than it did during George W. Bush’s tenure. Lee White, who testified on behalf of the National Coalition for History, said the White House has appointed two liaisons to the Archives.
And the panelists generally expect the White House and Archives will think more about historical records management and the Archives needs while working with the liaisons and as the White House and other agencies design new computer systems.