the white house
PHOTO: David Everett Strickler

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I worked in the oldest of all professions.

No, not THAT profession. I guess I mean the second oldest profession.

Thirty years ago, I ran the government affairs program for the largest technology association. There’s no hiding it ... I was a lobbyist. Whew. Just admitting it makes me feel a little better.

A Time of Transition

I had suppressed memories of this experience over the past two decades spent working in the third oldest profession, content marketing. But I was reminded of my lobbying years recently by an email from Arian Ravanbakhsh, supervisory records management policy analyst in the Office of the Chief Records Officer at the National Archives.

Every four years, the Federal Government moves into transition mode. No matter the outcome of the Presidential election, the Government enters a time of transition for senior staff across agencies. The Partnership for Public Service (PPS) Center for Presidential Transition produced a report last year highlighting the need for effective pre-election planning and preparation for significant turnover among the highest-level Government positions.

Very early on during the Clinton administration, I had my initial exposure to the perils of presidential transitions. I was invited to a meeting at the Office of Public Liaison, over at the Old Executive Office Building. Two impressions remain: The first was a series of desks with gigantic computers  — none of them networked —perilously perched atop various files and books and platforms aiming to provide a semblance of ergonomic intent. The second impression was when we went into the director’s office, I saw the largest pile of pink “While You Were Out” slips I have ever seen. (Note: For younger readers, unanswered “While You Were Out” slips were the previous generation’s version of unanswered cell phone voice messages.)

Ravanbakhsh’s email is timely, because regardless of the outcome of the election, major transitions occur after the first term of any presidential administration.

...from Election Day through the first six months of the second terms of Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, an average of 43% of their Cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries left their jobs. On average, 9% left prior to Inauguration Day and 34% left during the first six months of the second term.

And if we wind up with a change in administrations, well, it’s 2020. What could possibly go wrong?

The State of Records Management in the Federal Government

Every October, NARA releases a statistical summary of the current state of records management within the federal government. For the first time, this year NARA began measuring overall records management maturity in every agency or department across four domains: 1) management support; 2) policies; 3) systems; and 4) access.

For me, the most important domain is the third one — systems — because this domain measures how well “an agency’s systems and business processes support the automated management of trustworthy permanent electronic records over time in accordance with all applicable requirements.” In a time of transition — especially in a time of political upheaval — it is the automated integration of records and preservation requirements into systems that provides at least a bit of protection against selective politically-driven institutional memory, particularly for records associated with political appointees looking to protect their legacy.

NARA probed four revealing areas in this category:

Percentage of agencies with “high” or “moderate” risk

Area

53%

Integrated capabilities for electronic records management

34%

Inventory of relevant electronic information systems

62%

System owner awareness of records responsibilities

39%

System auditability to track results/use

Uh-oh.

All of this is important because records ultimately matter. They are the way we record who did what to whom, when and why. They are the way history is recorded. And given the way 2020 has gone, forgive me if my alarm bells are going off.

Keep shining a light on this issue, Mr. Ravanbakhsh.