NARA's Role in Presidential Transitions
October 29, 2020
By David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States
Every four years, when it is a Presidential election year, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) readies itself for one of its routine, but lesser-known, duties: preparing for a Presidential transition.
As a permanent member of the Agency Transition Directors Council (ATDC), NARA coordinates its activities with other federal agencies to ensure a safe and orderly Presidential transition should there be a change in administration. The council was established by the Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 (Public Law 114-136), and the act also sets a timetable for stages in transition planning. NARA has already met our statutory requirement to prepare and finalize briefing materials for the incoming administration by November 1, 2020.
During planning for a possible Presidential transition, NARA has two primary records management roles, governed by the Presidential Records Act (PRA) [https://www.archives.gov/about/laws#presrec] and the Federal Records Act (FRA) [https://www.archives.gov/about/laws].
In accordance with the PRA, we provide guidance at the request of the White House to support management of Presidential records and plan for the transfer of hundreds of millions of textual, electronic, and audiovisual records and thousands of Presidential gifts to NARA at the conclusion of the administration. NARA also has the responsibility to coordinate with the President on planning for a Presidential Library per the Presidential Libraries Act.
Under the FRA, we develop and provide records management guidance to federal agencies regarding the responsibilities of outgoing and incoming officials. NARA offers agencies records management guidance and briefing products specific to the needs of a possible transition through the GSA Presidential Transition Directory [https://www.gsa.gov/governmentwide-initiatives/presidential-transition-directory/records-management-guidelines] and on NARA’s website [https://www.archives.gov/records-mgmt/publications/documenting-your-public-service.html]. These resources include a handout and video briefing on records management guidance for political appointees; an online publication, “Documenting Your Public Service,” that provides government employees with information regarding their responsibilities for managing federal records; and model records and information management entrance and exit checklists. Our Records Express blog [https://records-express.blogs.archives.gov/tag/presidential-transition/] also offers transition-related information on records management best practices for officials entering and exiting Federal service.
In addition, for the last few months, NARA personnel have provided briefings and updates on records management responsibilities to key stakeholders, including the ATDC, Partnership for Public Service Agency Transition Roundtable, Federal Records Management Council, the Federal Records Officer Network, and at the Bi-monthly Records and Information Discussion Group (BRIDG).
Planning for a possible transition of Presidential administrations is a statutorily mandated process that we routinely prepare for every four years. We must begin planning far in advance of election day in order to have procedures in place should there be a need for a transfer.
Safeguarding the nation’s records is our primary mission, and careful planning and coordination throughout an election year enables us to fulfill our obligations to the American people now and in the future.