President Obama ordered federal agencies to begin creating records management systems designed for the 21st century, taking advantage of available digital technologies while protecting the public’s right to information about the actions and decisions of federal agencies.

The White House described the steps outlined in the order as the “most significant…since the Truman Administration to improve the management of federal records.”

“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,” said Cass Sunstein, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in a White House blog post.

“In the digital age, when many records are made and maintained in electronic form, we have extraordinary opportunities to improve records management…save money, improve efficiency, promote openness, and increase both accuracy and transparency,” he said.

The federal government’s 2.7 million employees produce an average of more than 475 million pages of information each year, according to the National Archives and Records Administration. Electronic records in particular have grown dramatically in recent years to an estimated total of 142 terabytes, NARA officials estimate.

The president’s memo is important for three reasons, said Reynolds Cahoon, a former senior adviser on electronic records to the Archivist of the U.S.

“It creates a level of visibility that records management really never had before. That’s significant. Second, it reaffirms that the agency head’s have the responsibility for managing records. Its in the (regulations), but having the president reaffirm it (means) it is something that not should be taken lightly,” he said.

Perhaps most importantly, it means NARA and the president “recognize that to make a fundamental transformation requires a level of collaboration, that is called for in the memorandum,” he said. “The whole thing has the potential the potential for being very positive.”

The presidential memorandum requires a number of concrete actions, said Sunstein.

Specifically, the Nov. 28 memo gave the heads of agencies until 120 days to submit a report to the national archivist and the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that:

  • describes the agency’s current plans for improving or maintaining its records management program, including email and social media, and for deploying cloud based services or storage solutions and meeting other records challenges;
  • identifies any obstacles to an agency’s adoption of sound, cost effective records management policies and practices; and
  • identifies policies or programs that would assist the agency’s efforts to improve records management.

A key provision of the president’s directive, Sunstein said, is a requirement that the director of OMB and the national archivist “consult with those inside and outside the government – including public stakeholders interested in improving records management and open government.”

Then a team of senior officials from the Office of Management and Budget, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Department of Justice will develop a records management directive for the executive branch overall.

The reality has been growing dissatisfaction with the preservation and dissemination of government information by those that need it to understand what their government does and how to find it.” – Brand Niemann

Katherine McFate, president of OMB Watch, was among others who praised the directive.

“Today’s announcement moves us closer to the time when all federal agencies are systematically using and improving digital records management techniques. This will save staff time and costs. It should also make public records more open and available to citizens,” McFate said. “There’s a lot of work to be done, and this is the first step in a process.”

“To be responsive and effective, the public sector needs to employ modern IT management techniques equivalent to or better than those the private sector uses,” McFate said.

But others are more skeptical that the a new round of mandates will move the government as fully into the 21st century as many would hope.

“This memorandum is something that every administration (in my 30 years of government service) would issue in the hope of improving performance,” said Brand Niemann, a former EPA data scientist and an adviser to Breaking Gov. “But the reality has been growing dissatisfaction with the preservation and dissemination of government information by those that need it to understand what their government does and how to find it,” he said.

“While the current administration has put considerable effort and money into a series of new web sites to deliver more open government, the response from the public is ‘I still don’t find the information I am looking for’,” he said.

“My recommendation …(is) that open government performance could be more effectively accomplished by information preservationists within each agency with a clear mandate from senior agency leaders to document and preserve what their agency does in state-of-the-art social media so the public and decision makers can readily find and reuse it,” he said.

Following is the text of the memorandum issued today:


SUBJECT: Managing Government Records

Section 1. Purpose. This memorandum begins an executive branch wide effort to reform records management policies and practices. Improving records management will improve performance and promote openness and accountability by better documenting agency actions and decisions. Records transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provide the prism through which future generations will understand and learn from our actions and decisions. Modernized records management will also help executive departments and agencies (agencies) minimize costs and operate more efficiently. Improved records management thus builds on Executive Order 13589 of November 9, 2011 (Promoting Efficient Spending), which directed agencies to reduce spending and focus on mission critical functions.

When records are well managed, agencies can use them to assess the impact of programs, to reduce redundant efforts, to save money, and to share knowledge within and across their organizations. In these ways, proper records management is the backbone of open Government.

Decades of technological advances have transformed agency operations, creating challenges and opportunities for agency records management. Greater reliance on electronic communication and systems has radically increased the volume and diversity of information that agencies must manage. With proper planning, technology can make these records less burdensome to manage and easier to use and share. But if records management policies and practices are not updated for a digital age, the surge in information could overwhelm agency systems, leading to higher costs and lost records.

We must address these challenges while using the opportunity to develop a 21st-century framework for the management of Government records. This framework will provide a foundation for open Government, leverage information to improve agency performance, and reduce unnecessary costs and burdens.

Sec. 2. Agency Commitments to Records Management Reform. (a) The head of each agency shall:

(i) ensure that the successful implementation of records management requirements in law, regulation, and this memorandum is a priority for senior agency management;

(ii) ensure that proper resources are allocated to the effective implementation of such requirements; and

(iii) within 30 days of the date of this memorandum, designate in writing to the Archivist of the United States (Archivist), a senior agency official to supervise the review required by subsection (b) of this section, in coordination with the agency’s Records Officer, Chief Information Officer, and General Counsel.

The reports submitted pursuant to this subsection should supplement, and therefore need not duplicate, information provided by agencies to NARA pursuant to other reporting obligations.

Sec. 3. Records Management Directive. (a) Within 120 days of the deadline for reports submitted pursuant to section 2(b) of this memorandum, the Director of OMB and the Archivist, in coordination with the Associate Attorney General, shall issue a Records Management Directive that directs agency heads to take specific steps to reform and improve records management policies and practices within their agency. The directive shall focus on:

(i) creating a Government wide records management framework that is more efficient and cost effective;

(ii) promoting records management policies and practices that enhance the capability of agencies to fulfill their statutory missions;

(iii) maintaining accountability through documentation of agency actions;

(iv) increasing open Government and appropriate public access to Government records;

(v) supporting agency compliance with applicable legal requirements related to the preservation of information relevant to litigation; and

(vi) transitioning from paper-based records management to electronic records management where feasible.

(b) In the course of developing the directive, the Archivist, in coordination with the Director of OMB and the Associate Attorney General, shall review relevant statutes, regulations, and official NARA guidance to identify opportunities for reforms that would facilitate improved Government wide records management practices, particularly with respect to electronic records. The Archivist, in coordination with the Director of OMB and the Associate Attorney General, shall present to the President the results of this review, no later than the date of the directive’s issuance, to facilitate potential updates to the laws, regulations, and policies governing the management of Federal records.

(c) In developing the directive, the Director of OMB and the Archivist, in coordination with the Associate Attorney General, shall consult with other affected agencies, interagency groups, and public stakeholders.

Sec. 4. General Provisions. (a) This memorandum shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(b) Nothing in this memorandum shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i) authority granted by law to a department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii) functions of the Director of OMB relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(c) This memorandum is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Sec. 5. Publication. The Archivist is hereby authorized and directed to publish this memorandum in the Federal Register.