Aristotle and Potlucks

Everyone brings their special dish to a potluck. It’s what makes a potluck so terrific. We make dishes we know well and are likely to be enjoyed by the crowd. My signature potluck dish is a killer potato salad!

Potlucks bring together the culinary expertise of the group in the same way that crowdsourcing leverages a community’s expertise to solve a problem. It turns out that the belief in the benefit of crowdsourcing is an old one. Aristotle said,

“It is possible that the many, no one of whom taken singly is a sound man, may yet, taken all together, be better than the few, not individually but collectively, in the same way that a feast to which all contribute is better than one supplied at one man’s expense.”

Who knew Aristotle was a such a big fan of potlucks?

At the 2010 Records Administration Conference (RACO), Cass Sunstein, lawyer, law school faculty member, author, and Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, said that

“…transparency draws on the understanding that no one knows what all of us know. I am speaking of access to dispersed information – of how open government can encourage public participation and allow citizens not just to keep the republic, but to shape it.”

Cass Sunstein and AOTUS

Cass Sunstein and AOTUS at the 2010 RACO Conference

All of this hinges on effective and efficient records management. Good recordkeeping enables our past to inform our future, helping us shape our government. Cass Sunstein said, “Records are like oxygen, no one really notices them until they are gone.”

As I said in my earlier post, there is a cause for concern about the state of our records management. As reported in our 2009 Records Management Self-Assessment Report, nearly 80 percent of agencies report that they are either at moderate or high risk of improper destruction of records. In the digital environment where everything is saved, but little is preserved, there are too many records at risk for damage or loss in the Federal Government.

I suggest that we need to start leveraging the strength of the potluck approach.

We can invite everyone to bring their own unique dish to the table. Records managers, IT professionals, chief information officers, federal government users, the private sector, and the public, all have expertise and skills that can help us address the challenges of records management. I’d like to be able to say that at the National Archives and Records Administration we have all the answers. The reality is that not one of us has the expertise to solve the problem alone.

This fall, Vivek Kundra and I will be co-hosting a joint meeting of the Chief Information Officers Council and the Federal Records Council at the National Archives. I see this as one step towards the collaboration and potluck approach that’s needed for records management. What else do you think is needed to leverage our collective expertise?

Records management is only one challenge. Digitization and online access to government records can also benefit from the collaborative expertise of the many, including the citizen archivists, researchers, federal agencies, the private sector, and IT professionals. What other challenges do you think would benefit from a potluck approach?

For Further Information: