- He’s in charge of maintaining the paper trail for the president, vice president, and all their deputies, assistants, counsels, and other staff members
- Every four or eight years, he’s in charge of clearing out all those records as a new administration displaces the old
Philip lead a session with Jason R. Baron, former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), during the inaugural Records Management Conference at 930gov on August 24, 2016. They spoke on “Presidential Transitions and Exit Procedures for Departing Officials,” covering what happens when the entire senior leadership of the U.S. Government packs up and leaves town.
You probably know that on Inauguration Day, it’s traditional for the president and president-elect to ride together from the White House to the ceremony at the Capitol. As the incumbent walks out through the North Portico, it’s a bittersweet moment—for the simple reason that he or she will not return that day and perhaps not ever.
And as soon as the limos sweep out of site, an army of movers attacks the residence on the third floor. All of the outgoing family’s belongings are packed into vans and are replaced by those of the new first family. When the new first family arrives, their new home will be ready for them.
The White House load-out and load-in is a tiny part of a far larger transition between the old and new administrations. As many as 1800 people work in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and the vast majority of those in White House components will be leaving.
According to Jason, an advocate for information governance, what they have created and will leave for NARA to own is an enormous mountain of presidential records, including:
- Hundreds of millions of emails
- Plane loads of paper
- Petabytes of other types of data, including photographs
The Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 designates every item in that vast trove as a presidential record. And under the PRA, the rules are clear: all presidential records of all White House employees must be transferred into the legal custody of NARA.
For political appointees at federal agencies, the rules are different. Only some records series in agencies are organized by administrations, Jason says. In other words, a cut-off date when those records must be sent to a records center may differ from the date one administration ends and another begins. Other internal records will be subject to an agency’s own policies regarding preservation or disposal, in accordance with the Archivist’s determination of when they will no longer have administrative, historical, informational or evidentiary value.
As a change in administration approaches, Jason recommends that departing officials follow NARA guidance and prepare thoroughly to make an “intelligent hand-off” by:
- Meeting with their designated records officer or ombudsman
- Working within the approved guidance framework for their agency
- Ensuring that all records—including documents, email, and data—are accounted for
- Removing purely personal information, especially PII
- Transferring any emails sent via private accounts to a .gov account
We’ve seen in the news that senior officials can generate tens if not hundreds of thousands of records. Waiting until the last minute to sort and prepare all that material will make for a big, ugly job. To avoid the rush, Jason recommends officials adopt these operating principles from the first day they walk into their new offices:
- Don’t skip the briefing on NARA and agency records management policies
- Understand what systems are in place to automatically capture records
- Follow procedures so that records are processed appropriately
- Use a .gov email account for all official business (and promptly copy or transfer emails relating to government business sent over a commercial account to a .gov account)
Ideally, for most officials, the day-to-day burden of records management will be almost invisible. But taking a few simple steps can save a lot of time and keep you out of trouble—especially with new laws covering emails.