The strong side of AOTUS’ house

I’ve previously referred to the National Declassification Center (NDC) as the strong side of AOTUS David S. Ferriero’s house.   The NDC has a strong learning culture.  Many of its officials and staff model values I admire, including  accountability, courage, reliability, integrity and fortitude.   And a good thing, too, as this post demonstrates.

One of the challenges in transforming the culture at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) lies in the fact that various divisions and functional units have exhibited and rewarded differing values and actions.  And used different tactics and strategies to achieve outcomes.  There are many reasons why, including the nature of the stakeholders with which they interact.   To some extent, the values of some stakeholders affect at times the way officials in different functional units behave within NARA.  What has happened in other parts of the house in the National Archives is unimagineable on the strong side.   This makes it challenging to create a unified culture at NARA.

I’ve seen it used so frequently, I laughingly concluded recently that using IdeaScale for public outreach must be perceived as mandatory at NARA!  Of course, it isn’t.   And it is up to program officials to determine where it best serves the agency and where other means of outreach would work better.   Or how to supplement its use to gather data that IdeaScale cannot pick up. 

I’m largely going to stop arguing against use of IdeaScale here, however.  I’ve come to realize this week that its ubiquity stems from some pretty complicated environmental elements within NARA.   While it won’t always lead to the best outcomes in all areas where it is used, I’ve figured out that there are hidden elements that explain why it is used as much as it is.    Having come to that conclusion, I actually defer to those elements.  I’m very inner directed but I also know when to be deferential.  I’ll leave  it at that!

Where do people who vote on NARA issues get their impressions of how the government works?  Anywhere they want.  NARA’s own blogs.  Advocacy blogs.  Niche news sources.   Their own experiences, feelings, or intuition. 

There’s no way to assess knowledge, perspective, biases among those who engage with NARA via IdeaScale.  No way to apply anything like the evidence standards that the Inspector General and audit community use.  (“Testimonial evidence obtained from an individual who is not biased and has direct knowledge about the area is generally more reliable than testimonial evidence obtained from an individual who is biased or has indirect or partial knowledge about the area.”) 

Essentially, a self selecting sample chooses to weigh in at IdeaScale.  And, as I’ve noted, some knowledgeable people who might opine sit silent.

I was gratified when Sheryl Shenberger, director of the NDC, quoted a comment I had posted at the blog in remarks she gave at a July 2010 meeting of the Public Interest Declassification Board.  She said of public input:

      “But the comment I took most to heart was this one about the use of ‘public input’: ‘For better or worse, not all “public input” is equal,’ according to the author.

Speaking to us at NDC, the writer continued, ‘

      When you use the term “high interest,” are you referring solely to high number (volume) of queries? Or does that also involve the much trickier issue of strongly applied external pressure? Pressure potentially can come from researchers who demand that maximum resources be assigned to process records that they want released. In an ideal world, complaints and threats to use one’s powerful outside “connections” would have no [effect] on such matters. The quiet, uncomplaining researcher should receive the same treatment as the complainer. Although it isn’t always easy for employees of archival institutions to push back, I hope NARA and other repositories are able to keep such pressurein perspective in deciding how to assess stakeholders’ needs and how best to assign resources.’

That is a fine piece of advice.”

While public interest groups and advocates have value in the airing out of many important issues, it’s easy to misunderstand how things work when you’re an armchair analyst on the outside.   Don McIlwain, a manager in the NDC, put up an excellent, detailed overview of the center’s operations and work processes on February 10, 2012.   There is no reason why Matthew Aid could not have drawn on it when he wrote a blog post about the NDC six days later.   

Unfortunately, Aid and Nate Jones, to whom he links, misunderstand some of the work of the Indexing and Declassification Division within the NDC.   (Neil Carmichael, director of the division, is pictured with Don McIlwain at left above.)  If my understanding is correct (and my NARA peeps certainly can comment here if they need to correct me) Aid errs in asserting that NARA once listed agency names on withdrawal sheets and no longer is. 

I shook my head to see Aid write, “This is silliness run amuck.”  

The implied threats to NDC’s budget and a comment by a member of the public at Jones’s blog about firing people did not sit well with me.  I’ve been the target of imflammatory rhetoric for my work at NARA.    It didn’t turn me into a bomb thrower, it reinforced my bridge building tendencies.  It’s one reason I plead so often for nuanced discussion of complicated records issues.   And look,  in vain so far, for other former National Archives’ officials to join me in discussing important issues in the public square.   Sometimes, just finding basic fairness in the discussion of NARA issues on the Interwebs is hard.  Man, it’s a good thing NDC really is the strong side of AOTUS’ house.

I first heard of Matthew Aid in 2006, when he revealed the secret Memorandums of Understanding regarding certain classified and declassified records that NARA had agreed to while John W. Carlin was AOTUS.  I know I defended former NARA Information Security Oversight Office director Bill Leonard’s defense of Aid in a letter to the editor of the Washington Post in 2006.  And I got slammed by a citizen for it.  But I’m troubled by the fact that Aid put up such a post and chose to link to Nate Jones’s February 1 post rather than Don’s thoughtful explanation at the NDC blog on February 10.  (Jones’s hypothetical projections about President Barack Obama don’t match my view of how presidents of either party judge, assess and prioritize initiatives.  To say nothing of dealing with them internally or externally. Oy vey.) 

Reading blogs such as Aid’s and Jones’s highlights for me the lack of good historians and public policy experts writing about how agencies such as NARA operate.  As far as I know, I’m the only history and archives blogger out here who focuses on the National Archives.  My interaction with other historians over the years has shown me that few have a deep understanding or interest in how the nation’s record keeper operates.  To say nothing of the cultural elements that affect its functional components.  I once asked an academic historian if he ever read books on management and leadership.  He replied no, why should he.

There’s nothing to stop a reader of Aid’s blog or Jones’s post from voting on IdeaScale.  And no way to tell that this informed their submissions or voting on Open Gov.  I’ve come to understand in recent days the complicated environment which leads NARA to turn to IdeaScale so often.  How it assesses the data gathered through Social Media is not yet clear to me!

More on NARA, the NDC, and stereotypes on the weekend.  And yes, of budgets and how they affect what agencies and the divisions within them can accomplish.  Looks as if I’m not going to run out of topics to write about here at Nixonara any time soon!

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