Saturday, March 20, 2010

Open Government in the Digital Age Summit: David Ferriero

Approximately 150 people -- IT professionals, archivists and records managers, public policy experts, and journalists -- attended the Open Government in the Digital Age Summit jointly sponsored by the New York State Office of the Chief Information Officer/Office for Technology and the New York State Archives.

In lieu of a lengthy recap, I’m going to put up two or three shorter posts -- one centering on the keynote address delivered by David Ferriero, the 10th Archivist of the United States, and at least one other post highlighting the key threads of the day’s discussion. I have several reasons for doing so:
  • I expect that all you archivists out there are at least a little curious about the new Archivist.
  • Certain points and themes kept coming to the fore throughout the day, and it makes more sense to take a little time and tease them out than to do a session-by-session summary.
  • I’m on vacation. I have some pretty intense sightseeing plans for the next few days -- which means that I need to break things up a bit and that posts about the Summit are likely going to alternate with posts about my travels. (Where am I? Come back tomorrow, and you’ll find out.)
First, however, a few words about “open government.” As a number of speakers and panelists pointed out, “openness” is commonly seen as being synonymous with transparency of operations and decision-making processes, accountability to citizens, and promotion of citizen participation in the creation of policy and development of services. Moreover, as several Summit participants noted as the day went on, open government requires an ongoing commitment to transparency and accountability -- and to ensuring that essential government information remains uncorrupted and accessible over the long term.

David Ferriero really helped to bring into focus the relationship between records and openness by stressing that if open government is your goal, you should focus on records management. In many respects, his point is obvious, but it’s all too often overlooked: how can you promise transparency and accountability if you can’t find the records that provide insight into government operations or policy development or can’t guarantee their completeness, accuracy, or integrity?

He then focused on the management of electronic records and the immense amount of work awaiting the federal government: a recent U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) survey of federal agencies revealed that agency records management and information technology staff, who really need to work together in order to manage electronic records appropriately, rarely do so. Moreover, almost every agency surveyed had records subject to a moderate or high risk of loss.

(Sadly, this situation isn’t unique to the federal government: the records management-IT disconnect is a big problem in New York State government and, judging from what I’ve heard from colleagues elsewhere, most other state and local governments are in the same boat. We’re all falling far short of the mark.)

Ferriero then discussed NARA’s own efforts to become more open and citizen-centered. Its Open Government Working Group, which is responsible for enhancing NARA’s ability to interact and collaborate with agency personnel and the general public, will post a formal plan for doing so on NARA’s Web site on 7 April. However, Ferriero gave us a preview of some of the recommendations that may appear in it:
  • Establish an ongoing group charged with figuring out new ways of doing business and increasing openness
  • Retool NARA’s strategic plan to include open government
  • Create staff-only Web 2.0 tools that will enable NARA personnel to share ideas and collaborate more effectively
  • Seek to engage the public via Facebook and other popular social media sites -- in essence, go where users are instead of waiting for users to come to NARA’s site
  • Redesign NARA’s Web site with end users in mind, update the records management section, incorporate an “Ask an Archivist” interactive feature, and set up a wiki so that researchers can share the results of their research
  • Sponsor an Apps for Archives competition (akin to the Apps for Army and other federal competitions) competition for development of applications that will improve access to NARA’s holdings
  • Realign digitization priorities and give users ability to see what’s in the digitization queue
  • Continue publishing high-value datasets in open formats on www.data.gov -- in essence, move from providing services to providing a platform for others to develop services
  • Investigate the possibility of developing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Web dashboard on FOIA services and responsiveness
  • Actively declassify records and streamline declassification protocols
  • Create an open government Web portal
Ferriero also took questions from the audience and offered up a number of fascinating tidbits:
  • NARA is working with the secretaries of the Senate and the House of Representatives to ensure that draft versions of bills are captured and preserved appropriately
  • NARA holds about 1 million e-mails from the Reagan administration, 250 million e-mails from the administration of George H.W. Bush, and anticipates getting approximately 1 billion e-mails from the Obama administration. Several of the people sitting around me gasped audibly.
  • In an effort to breach the records management-IT divide, he’s convening the first-ever joint meeting of the federal CIO Council and the federal Records Management ??
  • Like everyone else, NARA is still trying to figure out how to preserve Web sites, which change constantly; however, it’s plain that sporadic crawls such as those performed by the Internet Archive aren’t sufficient. (I agree; however, it’s just about the only practical approach available to most archivists at this time.)
  • When developing new online tools and services, you really need to focus on users’ circumstances and preferences, not your own internal uses of technology; if you don't, you're not really committed to openness. For example, only fifty percent of New York City residents have home Internet connections, but most of them have cell phones -- and want mobile services and applications.
The last couple of questions centered on e-mail, BlackBerries, and cell phones, all of which pose particular challenges for archivists and records managers.
  • Even the most conscientious employees occasionally use them to send and receive personal messages. Ferriero noted that, in the absence of automated tools that can pick out personal messages, it’s probably easier to keep everything than to conduct a manual review of messages. As an archivist who works with a small but growing volume of e-mail “archives,” I agree wholeheartedly: weeding these archives would be a time-consuming, soul-sucking task, and the resulting reduction in storage costs simply wouldn’t justify the investment of staff time.
  • Determining which messages to keep is a particular challenge. I disagree with the approach that Ferriero advocated -- keeping everything -- but I understand why someone charged with upholding the Presidential Records Act and acutely cognizant of the research potential of routine correspondence would advance this argument. There has to be a way to preserve an adequate historical record -- sampling (by individual or by agency), targeting the accounts of key personnel -- without committing to saving every message that passes through an agency’s e-mail servers.
Ferriero’s speech was really well received, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how NARA evolves under his direction. The next few years ought to be really interesting.

1 comment:

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