Thursday, May 20, 2010

Documenting Leadership: keynote and first session

Today was the first day of Documenting Leadership: A Symposium on Public Executive Records in the 21st Century. About 100 journalists, current and former public officials, policy researchers, archivists, and records managers were present, and more will be coming tomorrow.

I’ve had a very long day -- it began at 8:00 AM and ended at 8:30 PM, and the festivities begin again tomorrow at 8:00 AM -- so this post is going to focus on today’s keynote address and the first panel discussion. I’ll be playing catch-up tomorrow and over the weekend.

Richard Norton Smith

Richard Norton Smith, who has written biographies of several presidents and New York governors Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Dewey and who is currently working on a biography of Nelson Rockefeller, got the day off to a great start: Noting that 16 U.S. Presidents have had gubernatorial experience, he asserted that the fact that 4 of these presidents came from New York really shouldn’t be surprising: New York’s governors have reformed the civil service, altered industrial and labor practices, spearheaded mammoth public work projects, oversaw the development of an effective public health system, championed civil rights, and fought water and air pollution. For decades, New York functioned as the laboratory for federal reform.

He then discussed how his research has led him to value both archival records, which shed unique light on the personal qualities of executive leaders and the nuances of their thoughts and deeds, and oral histories, which may be flawed but help to fill in the gaps in the documentary record. I was particularly struck by his assertions concerning executive leaders’ attitudes toward their records: in his experience, presidents think they did a pretty good job, and they don’t lie awake trying to figure out how to cover up their mistakes or misdeeds. However, they do lie awake thinking of how to prove the Washington Post and the New York Times wrong. Noting that history is always more generous than headline writers, he expressed the hope that New York’s governors would eventually recognize that history is not a continuation of the New York Post.

Robert Ward and Robert Sink

Some of the themes that Smith touched upon returned during the first panel discussion of the day, “Public Policy and the Public Interest.” Robert Ward (Rockefeller Institute of Government) highlighted several factors that may help to account for the divergence between federal and New York State laws governing executive records: declining gubernatorial and legislative interest in tackling the large-scale issues that commanded the attention of the state’s governors for much of the 20th century, the “broad degrading” of political discourse, the State Legislature’s efforts to limit executive power, and growing disbelief in the value of public institutions. Moderator Rex Smith (Albany Times-Union) noted that the relatively new but widely held belief that government is inherently ineffective has also contributed to the situation.

Rex Smith and Ned Regan

Former State Comptroller Ned Regan (Baruch College, CUNY), who transferred his official records to the State Archives when he left office and periodically consults them, asserted that New York’s political circumstances may also be to blame. New York is a “strong governor” state, and its current “three men in a room” approach to politics -- only the governor, the Senate majority leader, and the Assembly speaker wield any real power -- emerged because it’s the only way that the legislative branch can stand up to the executive. However, this system breeds legislative dysfunction, and the fate of executive records is one of many important matters that legislators have not addressed. Robert Ward, who asserted that the “three men in a room” phenomenon is rooted in legislators’ self interest and their constituents’ failure to hold them to account, agreed that legislative dysfunction helps to account for the state’s failure to modernize laws relating to executive records.

Gerald Benjamin (SUNY New Paltz), who will participate in one of tomorrow’s panels, offered an interesting comment from the floor: unlike Smith, whose work centers upon people who have been out office for some time, he’s found that executives dealing with the day-to-day grind of politics often have a short-term interest in tampering with the historical record. Moreover, New York is facing an even more unsettling problem: loss of institutional capacity to deal with records. Responding in part to this comment, Ned Regan offered an incisive observation: “systems are more important than competence.” Indeed: while at the reception, a colleague and I concluded it’s better for an organization to have a long-lived, workaday records management program than to have a records management dynamo whose influence fades after his or her departure.

In retrospect, I’m kind of surprised that none of the panelists devoted much attention to Watergate. I’ve always suspected that one of the reasons that New York lacks a strong executive records law is that, to date, it hasn’t had a governor who has abused the powers of the office as egregiously as Richard Nixon abused those of the presidency. However, all of the other factors identified by the panelists -- the narrowed focus of gubernatorial and legislative effort, the strident tone of current political discourse, cynicism about government, and legislative dysfunction -- are certainly in play.

Robert Sink (formerly of the New York Public Library) highlighted how the problems identified by the other panelists fed a scandal centering upon municipal executive records. New York City had a weak public records law and a weak archival program and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who was intent upon reorganizing city government and had a “defiant attitude” toward the concept of freedom of information, slashed funding for the Department of Records and Information Services (DORIS), appointed a commissioner who had no archival or records management experience, and sought to rob it of its independence.

As Mayor Giuliani was preparing to leave office, he asserted that DORIS, which lost half of its staff as a result of budget cuts that he himself had made, couldn’t properly care for his records. He wanted to transfer them to a non-profit organization that bore his name, allow the organization to limit access to certain materials, and engage an archival consulting firm to process them; it soon came to light that he had offered his records to several non-governmental repositories, all of which turned him down.

These actions prompted a public outcry, and the records were returned to DORIS after processing. However, the city has not substantially increased support for DORIS, and its public records law, while strengthened, is still relatively weak. Moreover, even though a reputable archival consulting firm processed the records, the possibility remains that the records were “cleansed” while they were outside public control. If New York City had a strong public records law and a strong government archival program that was insulated from political pressure, the integrity of the records wouldn’t be subject to question.

A lively discussion of the merits of preserving public records in public archives ensued. Bob Sink noted that if a gubernatorial administration works with state archives staff to manage the transfer of records, the records’ chain of custody will be firmly established. Moreover, New York’s state archivist is not a political appointee, and the State Archives itself is not directly controlled by the governor. Archivists in the audience pointed out that state archives are repositories of other government records and knowledge of the workings of state government and that, unlike some private repositories that mandate that the archivists who process a politician’s records share that politician’s political views, they do not factor political beliefs into their hiring decisions.

All in all, a great start. More tomorrow . . . .

1 comment:

Bovina Historian said...

Bonnie, thanks so much for this. I couldn't come yesterday so this helped me put today into perspective. I look forward to your blog from today's session. It's always great when you are at a session I'm attending - you take such great notes!