Obama ordering agencies to keep better digital records

November 29, 2011

President Obama has ordered federal agencies to make wider use of digital-based recordkeeping systems in what his aides promise will be the most significant change to government archiving since Harry S. Truman’s presidency.

The White House on Monday gave agency bosses four months to draft plans to improve how they archive government records, with specific government-wide instructions to follow soon after. The goal is to make federal recordkeeping cheaper, faster and easier to access for Americans eager to explore government data, deliberations and decisions.

In issuing the order, Obama said the government’s archiving system “is based on an outdated approach involving paper and filing cabinets,” adding that his order would “move the process into the digital age.”

The government’s electronic archives top 142 terabytes of data, or 14,200 gigabytes. By comparison, the Library of Congress has accumulated 254 terabytes of data, and more than 20 years’ worth of images captured by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope account for more than 45 terabytes, enough to fill 5,800 DVDs.

The National Archives and Records Administration stores about 475 million pages of digital records annually, according to the White House, but the agency recently warned that agencies are behind in efforts to digitize records, meaning that they do not comply with legal requirements under the Federal Records Act.

But government transparency advocates said Monday that Obama’s order should help address those shortcomings.

“It sounds like a sensible evolutionary step forward,” said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists and director of its Project on Government Secrecy. “Some people might even be surprised that it hasn’t already been accomplished,” he said. “But the wheels of the bureaucracy turn slowly.

“Digital recordkeeping also raises new issues about record authentication, integrity and preservation that need to be addressed,” he said. And although the White House said the plans would inevitably save taxpayer money by making the recordkeeping process more efficient, Aftergood said the initial start-up expenses could prove costly.

Anne Weismann, general counsel of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), agreed. “This has been a documented problem for a long time,” she said. “I’m certainly pleased that the White House is finally tackling it. I would have been pleased if they’d done this two years ago.”

The plans are designed to eventually cut federal spending on recordkeeping, but aides familiar with the goals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, could not say how much money might be saved.

Aftergood and CREW are among several transparency advocates and good government groups that White House aides said would be consulted as the more aggressive digitization process begins.

Obama’s orders are part of an ongoing push to demonstrate White House resolve in addressing the lagging economy and concerns about federal spending. As part of the “We Can’t Wait” initiative, orders have been issued on curtailing government office waste, expanding the health-care workforce and providing job opportunities for military veterans.

Monday’s announcement could be a boon for the archives agency, which is facing a multi-year reorganization and earned the lowest ratings of any large federal agency in a recent survey of federal employees.

Archivist David Ferriero, appointed in 2009, said in a recent interview that his agency is still adjusting to the digital revolution.

“We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for a long time, and we haven’t been looking at what others are doing, and we haven’t been sharing what we’re doing,” he said.

During recent visits to his dozen regional offices, Ferriero said workers feared that the agency isn’t enhancing their skills to meet 21st-century demands.

For some people, the ongoing push to digitize “is a breath of fresh air,” he said, “and for other people, it’s an issue of dealing with change.”

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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