Redefining Transparency in a Digital Age

If you’re reading this, the following statistic from a recent Pew Internet report applies to you: 

Fully 82% of internet users (representing 61% of all American adults) looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website in the previous twelve months.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that increasingly Americans are relying on the internet for access to government information.  More and more this is taking the form of social media tools like blogs, social networking sites, and services like Twitter or text messaging.  While the social nature of this type of engagement makes the tone more informal, it does not indicate that the engagement is trivial.

In the same Pew Internet report, three-quarters (79%) agree with the statement that having the ability to follow and communicate online with government using social media tools “helps people be more informed about what the government is doing,” while 74% agree that it “makes government agencies and officials more accessible.”

In today’s digital age, the National Archives and Records Administration must fulfill its mission not only in the research rooms, regional archives, and presidential libraries, but also in cyberspace.  Through our website and creative use of social media tools, we can provide access to the records that document the actions of our government.  This enables greater transparency, a crucial pillar of open government.

What does it mean for the National Archives to be transparent?

It is clear this is a continually evolving concept.  We can’t accept what we’ve done in the past to suffice in this digital age with ever improving technological capabilities.

Technological advances can help us provide access to our records, educational events, and advisory committee meetings.  Our live programming needs to be available streaming online, and archived in order to meet the 24 x7 needs of our citizenry.

The White House is using Facebook and White House Live to stream video and take questions and comments in real time.  This allows everyone to have a seat at the table.  Important conversations are no longer limited by space and time.

I envision our website to work in tandem with social media tools to provide online platforms that encourage citizen engagement and access to government information.  We’ve got a lot of work to do for us to provide more.  It requires changing our culture to meet the new expectations for a transparent and open government.

In what ways do you think the National Archives could be more transparent?

David Ferriero
Archivist of the United States (AOTUS)

For Further Information:

9 thoughts on “Redefining Transparency in a Digital Age

  1. The National Archives could be more transparent by making available a description of EVERY series of records that it holds. In other words, no more “hidden” series.

    This should occur regardless of whether the series has been processed for declassification or still needs to be archivally processed.

    How else can we discover what the Archives holds?

  2. NARA, particularly as the home of OGIS, should publish an annual listing of its oldest pending FOIA requests for archival materials.

    This would help bring attention to internal and external delays.

  3. Please tell us about the leaders of the National Archives. If you review the “About Us” part of your website, it is hard put a face to the Archives.

    See this page as an example:

    It gives you names of units and names of the heads but with a couple of exceptions teh links tell you nothing of substance on leaders.

    Who are these people? What is their background? How can they be reached?

  4. Mary raises an interesting point. See I.A. at:

    Here is the actual

    A. Identification of Key Personnel

    Currently it is often difficult to identify and contact agency officials who are responsible for theprincipal issues and programs in agencies. These individuals need to be accessible to the public,both to explain the government’s perspective on issues and to obtain valuable information fromstakeholders and the general public as appropriate.

    The following actions are needed:
    • Each agency should publish on its Website organizational charts that show the variousoffices, divisions, bureaus, branches and other operational sub-units that conduct theagency’s business.

    • The names of the people who manage these organizational units should be identified, andkept up to date on a timely basis. The phone number and email address for these managersshould be available from the organizational charts.
    • There may be national security situations where disclosure of the names of specificindividuals would not be appropriate. In that case, alternative contact points may be needed.In the vast majority of domestic agencies, however, there is no compelling reason formaking key decisionmakers inaccessible to the public

  5. “In what ways do you think the National Archives could be more transparent?”

    NARA ranks near the bottom in employee satisfaction surveys. When the corporate culture changes to foster innovation and risk taking then a trusted organization will develop. Transparency will then be seen as an asset rather than a threat.

    Too many workflows exist that serve narrow self interests which in turn stiffle creativity and problem solving.

  6. Regarding transparency, it is typically not a term that I associate with Government agencies. The concept of making available our Nation’s history is one that constantly requires rethinking. What means we use today to consume information will no doubt change going forward. At the pace that technology currently changes, it is difficult to stay current with trends and industry buzz. By the time a concerted effort has been made, technology and the fickle public have already moved on to the next shiny object.
    If we are looking to improve transparency by integrating into social media, it is important that we not put too much stock in one technology or platform. What would be most beneficial to this cause is encouraging and open platform that can be migrated and adapted by framework like that used in Facebook, but then moved onto the next platform that is chosen by the public. was at one point the place for many generations to call home. In what seems like an overnight move, Facebook became a solution that was advertised as the next generation of social platforms that would protect data and privacy. As we have seen in recent months, Facebook has not shown their commitment to the very things that had drawn people to join.
    If the National Archives is to become a part of social networks, will its entity be that of a personality, or as a host? If we act as a host or a provider, we are forced into an area where the focus is more on back-end framework and code. If however, we create a personality that is the National Archives, the focus can be where it needs to be…on content. Moreover, any focus in consideration of technology should only be how to migrate our “personality” to the next popular socially popular website or service. Keeping in mind our goal to modernize data access and lower the barrier of entry to those previously unable to view our content, it is important that careful consideration be given to formats and scalability.
    Transparency doesn’t have to be a peek at the man behind the curtain. At this point, I’d settle for an engine that allowed me to see a list of properties and tell me what my options are to consume the experience. I’d like to be able to share my thoughts with others, friends or not. We should be able to have an open forum by which our opinions can be heard and interpretations encouraged. Transparency then, is not a function of what we are to do, but rather the platform by which all content is delivered going forward.

    David Lescalleet

  7. Thanks for this great blog. My first comment is on David Lescalleet post which I think is very well thought out and brings a lot to the table.

    With goverment agencies becoming more transparent I feel the same that not to much focus is aimed at one technology.

    Also with the advent of the internet I think blogs like this can be the place to go. It does not to have to be the facebook or myspace, which are both on their way out.

    Mr.Ferriero, thanks for taking the time to talk to the public, ask questions and show genuine concern. Its a relief to know there are some in washington that can connect with the people.

  8. Many thanks for the ideas to publish more info on NARA’s senior leadership. Here’s a direct link to that information on that just went up today: You can also link to this info off the org chart found at We still have a few pictures and bios to add but those will be coming over the next week or so. We’re also looking at ways to provide information about some of the people leading programs and organizations under the senior staff. Is this information useful?

    Susan Ashtianie
    Director, Policy and Planning Staff

  9. Mr. Ferriero, I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments. As a regional employee focused on educational outreach, I see firsthand how crucial it is for us to be able to provide our patrons – but especially educators and students – with ready access to digitized resources. That said, I’would like to see us reevaluate how web content is created. The current system divorces content development from web design by placing content development in the hands of content authors like me, and web design in the hands of the web program staff. This can lead to lots of miscommunication and headaches, but I wonder if there is a way to streamline this process. So, as we move forward with social networking, I think we need to also evaluate the existing system of how we create new web content, CD products, and other digital resources and how the regions can contribute more fully to these initiatives. Thank you for leading us in this direction. I am eager to see how these initiatives unfold.

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