Ferriero takes on NARA's culture, modernization challenges

David Ferriero, the new U.S. archivist, will be under pressure to improve access to government information and security at the National Archives and Records Administration. A Q&A with staff writer Ben Bain.

David Ferriero became the 10th U.S. archivist late last year after the National Archives and Records Administration spent almost a year without a permanent chief.

As the first professional librarian to oversee NARA, he brings management experience from top jobs at the New York Public Library, Duke University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But almost no archival experience can match the scale of NARA’s billions of documents. The agency is also responsible for preserving records from past presidential administrations, helping agencies keep track of their growing piles of digitally born records, and directing a $550 million electronic recordkeeping project called the Electronic Records Archives (ERA).

Ferriero will be under pressure to improve access to government information, especially from open-government advocates emboldened by President Barack Obama’s promises of increased transparency. And federal lawmakers are looking to Ferriero to improve security in light of recent high-profile lapses that have landed NARA in the news, including the revelation in May 2009 that a 2T external hard drive with official records from the Clinton administration disappeared from a processing area at a NARA facility near Washington.

Federal Computer Week reporter Ben Bain sat down with Ferriero in early December at his office near the National Mall in downtown Washington.

FCW: What are your initial impressions of the job? Has anything surprised you so far?

David Ferriero: [There are] surprises every day.… I was at the New York Public Library for five years, and…just when you think you know everything and you’ve mastered everything, something will come out of left field and surprise you. So when you start up a new position like this, I would be surprised if there weren’t surprises.

As you were preparing to take charge as the U.S. archivist, what did you see as the most important area that you wanted to brush up on?

The ERA initiative was probably the most visible to me just because it’s something that every large research institution in the country is grappling with. I can remember sitting at both Duke and the New York Public Library paying attention to what the [National Archives] was doing, looking for solutions. So it became to clear to me from Day One in terms of conversations about the job that that would be a very important first thing I needed to get involved in.

What makes preserving electronic records so difficult?

I think it’s not specific to electronic records; it’s technology in general. It feels very much like my experience in the university setting, where schools and faculties are allowed to do their own thing. [They’re] very entrepreneurial, so the variety of platforms, software packages, the homegrown approaches to doing their work is very much what I see here with records in the agencies. There are no standards, which makes it difficult for the archives then to ingest the content.

Some critics have said NARA needs to play more of an enforcement role with federal agencies.

No argument with me. One of the responsibilities of the Archives is to ensure that the agencies are capturing the records in a way that we can ingest them, take care of them. So that means playing a much more active role in training, guidance, standards and working with them to ensure that we get what we need. And it’s not like we’re the police and we’re doing this just to punish the agencies. Our responsibility is to make sure that these records are available in perpetuity.

NARA has begun auditing agencies again, right?

It’s too early to talk about that, but I certainly am committed to re-establishing my authority over the records. Having dealt with records management programs in three institutions, I think it’s safe to say that — and I’m generalizing here —  the responsibility for records usually [falls to] the most junior person in the department, in high-turnover situations. That’s where the Archives needs to step in and make sure those people are adequately trained and doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

Are there any goals or milestones you’ve set for yourself in terms of access?

For the first time, we have a chief technology office in the White House, and I have great hope in working with that office in terms of establishing a different kind of approach to technology. We’re spending $76 [billion to] $78 billion a year across the government on technology and 10,000 different systems. That’s huge.

So you believe there’s a role for NARA in that process?

Of all the other agencies, we’re the one that interfaces with all of them, so we see it really upfront and personal in the work that we’re trying to do around electronic records. I don’t think other agencies see it the way we do.

NARA’s inspector general has raised concerns about ERA and information security at NARA. What steps are you taking to deal with those concerns?

I’ve always had very good relationships in all of my previous establishments with the internal auditing agencies, and I see this as very much an important way for me to have kind of an early warning system about issues. I think it’s safe to say that the relationship has not been good, and [the IG and I] are committed to turning that around. Communication is the beginning of that, and I’ve established regular meetings with him. I’m committed to taking him seriously.

What security challenge do you want to tackle first?

The security of collections — physical and virtual — is very important. But to put it in context, it’s an issue that every research collection deals with. It’s this tension between protecting the collections and making them available to the public and having the safeguards in place that ensure that that material is protected.

A lot of NARA’s holdings are old and getting older, and the idea with ERA is to make everything accessible. Do you have any plans for how that might happen?

It’s kind of early to talk about it, but there is certainly a commitment on my part to continue and strengthen the digitization program so it’s a process of ingesting the born-digital [material], but also creating digital surrogates for the material that we already have.… Partnerships [with companies that digitize materials] are ways of accomplishing that.

How do you think federal executives view NARA, and how do you wish they did?

I haven’t really had enough experience to answer that, but I would assume just based on my experience since the announcement was made with my own set of colleagues, most people don’t know what the Archives is all about.

Do you see that as a problem?

Sure.… I’m going to be spending a lot of time in offices — in the two weeks [since taking office], I’ve already been up to the Hill a lot — but [I’ll be] moving around to the agencies to let people know that I’m here and that we’re serious about the records.

What topics do you see as having the steepest learning curves for you?

For me, the No. 1 thing is the staff and ways of turning around the job performance survey, the morale survey. I mean, being ranked 29 out of 30 [in a recent survey on best places to work in the federal government] doesn’t sit well with me, and in order for us to accomplish everything that is on the agenda that we have to do, we have to turn that around and turn that around quickly. So that is my No. 1 priority.

In terms of a steep learning curve on the technology side, it’s certainly ERA, but it’s also the technology infrastructure within this agency. If we’re going to be the leader for the other agencies, then we have to be out in front.

What do you hope to have accomplished a year from now?

The first one is the agency culture in terms of how we go about doing our work and how people feel about working in the agency. And I want the agency to be recognized as the leader in managing electronic records — recognized within the government but also nationally and internationally.

There’s a whole list of [other] things that I would love to be able to say in a year that we would have solutions to, but if I can get those two in a year, I’ll be happy.