Thursday, January 29, 2009

PowerPoint to the People?

I don't expect that journalists will grasp the finer points of records management, and I recognize the acute time pressures that they face. I am nonetheless disappointed when a reporter or columnist whose work I generally admire makes a mess of things. Fred Kaplan, Slate's military affairs correspondent, has just joined the ranks of journalists who haven't done their homework.

In this week's column, "PowerPoint to the People," Kaplan starts by identifying another step that, in his view, would enable that the Obama administration could demonstrate its stated commitment to open government:
Force the federal agencies to file and maintain all the records they're creating now, so that in the future when citizens file [Freedom of Information Act] requests to declassify documents, they won't receive a form letter that reads, "Sorry, no such documents exist."
Archivists and records managers will immediately pinpoint the folly of this approach, which will result in the preservation of all kinds of materials that simply don't warrant long-term preservation, among them countless e-mail messages about routine matters (e.g., lost reading glasses, traffic problems, staff holiday parties), innumerable iterations of draft documents produced in the course of completing projects, duplicate copies of files disseminated for staff review or convenience, copies of billing records documenting routine purchases (e.g, pens, notepads), and other records of transitory value. In such a recordkeeping environment, the important stuff will probably be kept, but sifting through all of the digital detritus in order to find it might be a real challenge.

Most of "PowerPoint to the People" concerns a U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) assessment of recordkeeping practices within U.S. Air Force central offices. This report was completed in 2005 but remained an internal document until this week, when it was released as a result of a lawsuit filed by the National Security Archive.

Unfortunately, a close reading of the report itself suggests that Kaplan did not fully engage with it or do any sort of follow-up work. For example, as Kaplan rightly notes, the report indicates that "electronic records" generated by the fifteen units that comprise Headquarters Air Force "are generally not disposed of in accordance with" federal regulations. However, as the report plainly states, one of NARA's key findings was that "to date, this has largely resulted in retaining temprorary records indefinitely, as opposed to their premature disposal or the destruction of permanent documents" -- a conclusion that directly contradicts the keep-everything approach that Kaplan advocates.

Kaplan's dissection of the report's assessment of NARA's own capacity to manage electronic records also leaves the impression that this column was assembled with undue haste. He makes much of the report's assertion that NARA "is still unable to accept Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint slides": PowerPoint is the preferred format for internal Pentagon briefings, and NARA's inability to accept PowerPoint files raises the possibility that a significant amount of archival records created by the military "may be lost to the ether."

NARA's apparent inability to accept PowerPoint slides or Word documents is truly distressing, and NARA's current transfer guidelines indeed indicate that, at least at this point in time, agencies cannot transfer files in these formats. Nonetheless, had Kaplan done a few quick Web searches he would have been able to advance a stronger and more nuanced argument.

For example, Kaplan, whose only source is the 2005 Air Force recordkeeping report itself, points out that:
The National Archives only "recently" —- it doesn't say how recently -— revised its procedures so that it could accept e-mail with attachments, scanned text documents, PDFs, digital photos, and Web content.
According to NARA's current electronic records transfer guidelines, NARA began accepting e-mail with attachments in September 2002 and continued expanding its list of acceptable file formats until September 2004, when it started accepting Web records. Why Kaplan didn't do a quick Web search -- or simply call NARA's press office -- is a bit of a mystery.

Kaplan also notes that:
The National Archives is developing an "Electronic Records Archive," so that it can finally deal with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. But, according to the study, that is being "planned for implementation in the next seven years." (Italics added.) The study was written four years ago; so, assuming the program is still on track, it will be up and running three years from now, when Obama's first term is almost over.
NARA hasn't always been as forthcoming about the specifics of the multi-year, multi-phase Electronic Records Archives project, which began taking in records last summer, as some within the archival and records management communities would like. However, the NARA Web site contains a lot of information about the program, and tracking it down isn't particularly difficult.

Finally, Kaplan summarizes the report's recommendations regarding improvement of electronic records management practices as follows:
Meanwhile, the study urges all agencies to keep their electronic records in a safe place. Good luck with that.
In fairness, assessing the report's recommendations is a bit of a challenge: all of the higher-level recommendations have been redacted from the publicly released version of this report. However, the report contains many recommendations that were not redacted and are readily identifiable, among them:
  • Give the records management office greater visibility and authority by increasing the salary grade of the records management officer and placing all records management staff positions under the authority of the records management officer.
  • Develop detailed file plans for all Headquarters Air Force offices.
  • Maintain all records "in electronic folders on a shared drive in accordance with the [records] disposition schedule."
  • Headquarters Air Force should consider implementing an electronic recordkeeping system that complies with Department of Defense standard DOD 5015.2-STD.
  • Transfer to NARA archival paper records and electronic records encoded in formats that NARA can currentl accept.
  • Work with NARA to ensure that all electronic records are properly scheduled, i.e., classed as meriting permanent preservation or eligible for destruction at an agreed-upon time.
  • Taking steps to ensure that duplicate copies of electronic records are identified and properly disposed of.
  • Ensuring that records slated for transfer to a NARA-operated federal records center are indeed transferred appropriately.
One can argue that these recommendations fall short of the mark, but surely they amount to more than simply advising Headquarters Air Force to "keep their electronic records in a safe place."

I still like most of Kaplan's work; among other things, he's offered what is, in my view, the most cogent explanation to date of President Obama's decision to appoint Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency. I also recognize that every now and then, a good columnist will produce a real clinker of a piece -- s/he may be chasing a big story, unable to marshal all the facts prior to deadline, or simply under the weather during a given week. I just wish that Kaplan's clinker had centered on something other than electronic recordkeeping.

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