Guest Post: What does the National Archives do to support good recordkeeping during the change of administrations?

Guest post by Meg Phillips, External Affairs Liaison at the National Archives and Records Administration

The National Archives has been hard at work preparing for and then supporting the change in Presidential administrations. This is one of the moments when NARA’s role is particularly critical in ensuring that the normal functioning of government continues, that outgoing and incoming officials understand their responsibilities under the law, and that the records of the outgoing President are archived for posterity.

This has also been a transition of heightened interest in the role that we play, partly because of expected changes in policy between one administration and the next, and partly because of the increasing importance of social media, web records, and electronic messaging applications that are relatively new to recordkeeping processes.

For all these reasons, NARA has fielded an unusual number of press inquiries about the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act and NARA policies over the last few months. In response, we’ve made a great deal of information on these issues publicly available on our web site.

We also publish all the guidance we provided to Federal agencies online to help them educate incoming and outgoing officials about their recordkeeping responsibilities. This package of guidance and training material is the most comprehensive (and social media savvy) we’ve ever prepared for a transition. We want it to be widely available within the Federal government, but it may also be useful to other government archivists in other settings.

One of the things I do as External Affairs Liaison is stay in touch with the leadership of SAA, the Council of State Archivists, and NAGARA throughout the year. The current guest post started out as background reading for a briefing on “what’s new at NARA” for the leadership of these organizations on February 13, 2017. We thought NARA’s activities might be of more general interest, so Nance invited me to share this summary of our activities with you here.

You can get a good sense of what we’ve made available for different audiences just by glancing over the list of resources here, but if you’re interested in the details, I hope you’ll click through and read some of the underlying guidance as well.

NARA Transition Guidance for Federal Agencies

Our Records Express blog did a good job of summarizing most of the guidance and tools available for Federal agencies in a post on November 16, 2016, “Records Management Guidance for the Presidential Transition.” Some of the key things mentioned are our kits for briefing new political appointees on Federal records management (including a video and handout) and new model checklists for use with incoming and outgoing employees to make sure all the recordkeeping bases are covered. The blog posts includes links to these other resources:

We’ve also reminded agencies of current policy on issues of high public and media interest, such as the management of web records, social media records, and other electronic records.

In many cases, websites contain databases or datasets. We remind agencies that such data, or the systems in which they reside, must be scheduled as Federal records. On the other hand, many records presented on agency websites are already scheduled and captured in agency systems that are properly scheduled in accordance with the Federal Records Act. Agencies must be able to identify situations in which this is the case.

NARA Transition Activities at the White House

The Presidential Records Act works differently than the Federal Records Act, and NARA has a limited role in the management of Presidential records – but the central role in archiving them at the end of a presidency.

NARA’s Public and Media Communications office has gotten a lot of questions about Presidential records issues, though, so they created a special National Archives News page to pull together information for the press and public: National Archives News: Presidential Records and Federal Records Guidance.   This includes the 2016 version of Guidance on Presidential Records, which we have prepared for every incoming administration since 2000.  They also posted the Archivist’s March 30, 2017, letter in response to a letter from Senators Claire McCaskill and Tom Carper asking about White House compliance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which addressed their questions about preserving the President’s tweets—including deleted tweets—and about the use of smartphone apps. The letter included the briefing material that NARA staff provided to the White House Counsel’s Office.

For a very good, thorough article on the process NARA goes through with the White House during a change in administration, see Moving Out, Moving In: The National Archives’ Important Role when the Presidency Changes Hands, Prologue Magazine, Winter 2016, Vol. 48, No. 4.

And finally, the Obama White House did a long blog post that describes part of NARA’s role in The Digital Transition: How the Presidential Transition Works in the Social Media Age, 10/31/ 2016. (While you’re there, note the obamawhitehouse.archives.gov in the URL – this is the archived version of the Obama White House web site, now hosted by NARA and the Obama Presidential Library.)

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