It's time for a new NARA chief

Robert Gellman

In 1984, Congress made the National Archives and Records Administration an independent agency. The president has the power to remove the archivist as long as the president reports the reasons to Congress.

The current archivist is John Carlin, former Democratic governor of Kansas. The 1995 appointment by President Clinton of a politician without any professional qualifications raised eyebrows. As the supposedly nonpolitical head of an independent agency, Carlin reportedly has not submitted his resignation to the Bush administration.

With the political background now clear, let's get down to the real issue. I don't want to see Carlin fired for political reasons. He should be removed for failure to provide leadership.

NARA's major delinquency is the preservation of electronic records. How to preserve for the long term files on the Internet and other electronic records is the major problem in information policy today. When I talk to agency librarians, records managers and webmasters, nearly everyone is desperate for better guidance and software for preserving electronic records.

Why replace the archivist? Because NARA has never managed to get a grip on the problem. We have seen a series of stopgap proposals and interim policies that do not get to the heart of the matter or reflect an understanding of the fundamental importance of digital data.

NARA promises solutions down the road, but a generation of electronic records may be lost because of the lack of direction.

NARA still wants to preserve electronic records by printing them on paper and saving the paper. At this late date in the Internet era, telling agencies to destroy electronic records is barbarous. It's the equivalent of the surgeon general advocating bloodletting as a routine medical treatment.

Is the archivist personally at fault? As least as much as a football coach is responsible for a losing team. At some point, it just doesn't matter.

After more than five years in office, Carlin has failed to direct NARA to produce and implement a coherent policy for preserving electronic records.

I can already hear mewling from the archives community that it would set a bad precedent for a new president to replace the archivist. But if the choice is between a politically neutral, dysfunctional NARA and a politicized but competent one, I will take competence any day.

Neither political independence nor professionalism is worth anything without sound leadership and results. The last archivist was professionally trained, but he didn't show independence, leadership or competence. Carlin is better than the last guy, but that isn't saying much.

To be sure, the Office of Management and Budget shares the blame here, and some would blame Congress, too. We don't have to ask for a change in OMB management; we get that free with a new administration. And blaming Congress is like blaming the moon.

We need someone to run NARA who can deliver a top-notch electronic records preservation policy. John Carlin has not proved to be that leader.

Robert Gellman is a Washington privacy and information policy consultant. E-mail him at rgellman@cais.com.

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