Federal records are crucial to documenting the history of our national experience –the problems, the triumphs, and the challenges. They provide a prism through which future generations will view, understand, and learn from the actions of the current generation. A sensible system of records management is the backbone of open government.
For many decades, the framework for records management has been based on an approach developed in the middle of the twentieth century, involving paper and filing cabinets. Things are of course very different today. In the digital age, when many records are made and maintained in electronic form, we have extraordinary opportunities to improve records management. New steps can save money, improve efficiency, promote openness, and increase both accuracy and transparency. They can provide great benefits to posterity.
Today President Obama is taking a historic step -- and the most important step in many decades -- to improve the management of federal records. Delivering on a commitment in the recent Open Government Partnership: National Action Plan for the United States, he is calling for a large-scale transformation in how agencies maintain their records. In the process, he is inaugurating a government-wide effort to reform records management policies and practices.
Today’s Presidential Memorandum requires a number of concrete actions. The new effort calls for reports, by each agency head, describing their current plans for improving records management programs; outlining current obstacles to sound, cost-effective records management policies;and cataloging potential reforms and improvements. The agency reports will inform, and be followed, by a Records Management Directive, to be issued by the Director of OMB and the National Archivist. The Directive will focus on maintaining accountability to the American public through documenting agency actions; increasing efficiency (and thus reducing costs); and switching, where feasible, from paper-based records to electronic records. In addition, all statutes, regulations, and policies must be reviewed to improve government-wide practices in records management. In a key provision, the President has required the Director of OMB and the National Archivist to consult with those inside and outside the government – including public stakeholders interested in improving records management and open government.
Today’s action begins a large-scale transformation in how we maintain the backbone of open government. It promises, at once, to save money, to increase accuracy, and to contribute knowledge and perspective to future generations.
Cass Sunstein is the Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs