On Friday, April 10, 2015, the National Declassification Center held a public forum, NDC Prioritization: What Secrets Do People Want to See? to discuss prioritization of its holdings as a way forward since the completion of the 351 million page backlog in February 2014.
The public forum featured remarks from the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, and commentary from the Director of the NDC, Sheryl Shenberger. In her remarks, Ms. Shenberger outlined the five goals of the NDC moving forward (in no particular order):
- Making sure another backlog of records awaiting declassification review never accumulates at the National Archives again,
- Increasing public access to previously reviewed and exempted records by focusing on document-level referral review at the Interagency Referral Center,
- Standing up a review process for the earliest withdrawn items, particularly those withdrawn before the NDC began using a computerized data capture system in 2002,
- Fostering an improved and more direct relationship with researchers at the National Archives and
- Continuing to prioritize series of records based on researcher/government requests, the significance of the historical topic and the quality of the earlier review to provide special historical themed collections.
David Langbart, Senior Archivist, provided his thoughts on topic-based prioritization as it relates to archival processing and description. Supervisory Archivist Martha Murphy was also a presenter, discussing how the National Archives is currently processing the remaining withheld records related to the JFK Assassination. You can view more information about the work of the National Archives and the processing of the JFK assassination records here.
PIDB member and Acting Chair, William Leary, participated as a member of a panel discussing prioritization for declassification. In his remarks, Mr. Leary discussed the six recommendations made by the PIDB in its 2014 supplemental report, Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification. In this report, the PIDB advocates for a coordinated, government-wide approach to declassifying information based on those records most sought after and of most historical significance to the public. To this end, Mr. Leary discussed the need for experts in the declassification community and requester community to work cooperatively to determine how to set priorities, acknowledging that useful models exist already, including that which drives the review of records for inclusion in the Foreign Relations of the United States series (FRUS). He noted that ending pass/fail declassification determinations, which inevitably lead to wasteful re-reviews of records, should be a part of the adopted model for prioritization.
Mr. Leary discussed the need for improved records and information management practices. He successfully argued that the NDC has the ability to incorporate topical declassification without compromising archival principles, including those related to provenance and the idea of original order. Indeed, selecting topics by series as priorities is feasible, practical and in concert with archival processing. Mr. Leary noted that this is one way, among many ways, to improve public access to high-value records, noting that agencies will need to use better risk management strategies and eliminate or severely restrict review of specific records found to have little value. He also discussed the importance of prioritizing Presidential records as these are arguably the most complete and accurate source of information about our nation’s history and role in the world.
Mr. Leary’s remarks during the forum reflect the PIDB’s shift in focus from the quantity of records reviewed to the quality of records declassified. Moreover, the challenges posed by electronic records and the volume of information the government now creates mean that changes in declassification processes, from a variety of standpoints, are necessary to effectively transform the system to one that is sustainable in the digital age.
To view the entire NDC public forum online, please visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABsaEa9v4ik (best viewed via Chrome browser).
The panel discussion featuring Mr. Leary begins at 32:00, and Mr. Leary’s specific remarks begin at 1:17:00.
For more information about the NDC public forum and comments from the Director of the NDC, please visit the NDC blog.
Please continue to follow our blog, Transforming Classification, to learn more about the PIDB’s recommendations concerning prioritization.