The beginning of real change at NARA?

Last week, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, released to the public (via his blog) the final report of the Archivist’s Task Force On Agency Transformation. Their report recommends significant changes in organizational structure and culture, characterized by “The Six Transformational Outcomes and Organizational Change.” Anyone with more than a passing interest in NARA should read the whole report.

In closing his blog post, Ferriero asks his readers (staff, researchers, and “citizen archivists”) “are you in?” I’m sure he’s gratified that so far 65 people have responded that they are. Many of those 65 are people I know and respect (including the illustrious Richard Cox), and I am sure their responses are sincere. So, am I “in”? Longtime readers of this blog (were you reading back in January 2008?) and people who knew me when I worked at NARA will know the answer to that question is yes (or perhaps more appropriately, “duh!”). So, yeah, I’m supportive, but I think the topic deserves a little more attention than a simple comment on his blog.

A lot of the specifics of the plan are things that have been talked about for a long time, such as breaking up the fiefdoms of NW, NL and NR, and the main goals are generically good and wholesome: One NARA, Out in Front, An Agency of Leaders, A Great Place to Work, A Customer-Focused Organization, and An Open NARA. Who’s going to take issue with those? I suspect at this stage what criticism there is would revolve around what parts of the organization have been allocated to various new units. At first I was not pleased to see that NL’s responsibilities for the records held in Presidential libraries continue to be organizationally aligned with the libraries’ museum functions under the new Library and Museum Services unit. However, reading to the end of the report (slide 31), this exchange in the Questions & Answers section provided a reasonable explanation:

Why aren’t the archival work functions of the Presidential Libraries and Center for Legislative Archives placed within the Research Services office?

Several comments asked us to consider placing research services currently performed in each individual library into the Research Services office. We have concluded, as a practical matter, not to recommend this change. The foremost reason is our keen awareness that the future of the Presidential library system is currently under discussion in Congress. We did not want to propose actions that would appear to preempt that review. In addition, considerable attention and time exceeding the deadline of this Task Force would be needed to address negotiation of 13 separate agreements with library foundations, the legally mandated framework of the Center for Legislative Archives, and the statutory distinctions indicated for Presidential records.No such distinctions exist for Federal records in the holdings of Federal records created by agencies.

I’m sure there may be other concerns about where specific units move in the organizational structure. But aside from that, what more is there to say about this plan? (Take that as your cue to write a comment.) Shouldn’t this just be a “rah, rah, go team, David Ferriero is the greatest thing since sliced bread!” post? Well, maybe, but allow me to put a slightly different spin on it.

Making the transition to this shiny new culture is going to be incredibly hard. Structural reorganizing is nothing compared to what it will take to change attitudes and work habits. At this point, many of my NARA friends are now yelling at their screens, “You don’t understand! Things are different now, people are really ready for this!” And I’m sure that’s true for a lot of people. But not everyone. And while NARA staff may be ready for change in theory, they may not be so ready when that change begins to affect them more directly.

So, here are a few observations that David Ferriero and NARA people know well, but that everyone else needs to keep in mind:

1) This is going to take a while. The last element of the report is a list of outcomes that NARA plans to achieve in five years. Perhaps the most important factor in making those outcomes occur is that Mr. Ferriero needs to stick around and stay committed. If that doesn’t happen, there is a good chance elements of this plan will fail.

2) NARA’s key leaders need to be fully committed to this plan. And that means anyone who has another agenda or can’t make the transition to the new culture needs to leave. Based on my experience trying to work for change at NARA, I can think of a few managers who don’t seem suited to this new way of thinking. So I would expect to see some significant turnover in the senior ranks, and if I don’t see that I’ll be a bit concerned. But, who knows, perhaps some leopards can change their spots?

3) NARA will need public support, but not from other archivists. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter whether I’m “in” or not. (In fact, you’ll note that in his call for supporters, Ferriero mentions “staff, researchers, and citizen archivists,” but not us regular archivists. We’re not the audience.) In my relatively short career as an archivist, I have observed that the archival profession generally supports (or doesn’t question) anything the National Archives wants to do, and the National Archives doesn’t really care what the archival profession thinks. We have no influence over NARA’s budget. We are not key stakeholders.

The anonymous blogger ArchivesMatter(s) asked this morning (following up from something on the listserv), why there aren’t more retired archivists who comment on NARA and government records matters. His/her explanations are reasonable, but I’ll suggest another–why bother? I’ve been writing this blog for years now and while I enjoy it, and occasionally people tell me they find it worthwhile, I’m under no illusion that anything I’ve ever written about NARA has made a shred of impact on them. All I know for sure is that some posts have made people at NARA gnash their teeth, wring their hands, and say some not nice things about me.

So whether you like the plan or I like the plan or Richard Cox likes the plan really doesn’t matter. What matters is how many NARA staff are committed to these changes and how quickly Ferriero and his team can get good leaders into place to make them happen. I sincerely hope that in five years we see that list of desired outcomes has been achieved.

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3 thoughts on “The beginning of real change at NARA?”

  1. Thanks for posting this, Kate. You make some excellent points, especially regarding the importance of Mr. Ferriero sticking it out for a while. Major initiatives in large organizations require commitment, knowledge and charismatic, inspiring, and insightful leadership. The expectation is that a U.S. Archivist will serve ten years, so as to avoid the perception of serving a single presidential administration, although that is not in the statute (as was proposed in early drafts). Of the Archivists who have held office since 1985, however, none have made it ten years, which is a bit sobering. John Carlin came closest but the reasons why President Bush asked for his resignation never were made a part of the official record.

    As to your comment, “why bother?” I can see why you would say that. Many of us who sometimes write about NARA issues sometimes feel like voices crying in the wilderness. I don’t know that it necessarily is true that nothing you have written has made a shred of difference in what NARA does. I hope it isn’t true. I can only speak for myself, but sometimes I see someone write something which I initially reject or think, “well, no” (as with everyone, pride sometimes gets in the way) only to have it ferment in the background for a while until I surprise myself by reversing course and thinking, ‘well, yes, he or she is right.” Echo chambers don’t help, we all need people to challenge us in a good way (not mean spiritedly) and so do organizations. Your challenges are of the good sort, in my view.

    Maybe some of what you’re written at the blog has started some good fermentation within NARA, even if the results are not immediately apparent. You’re definitely one of the more thoughtful voices out there on NARA and archival issues in general. As for irritation, everybody has someone gnash their teeth at them sometimes. It’s the price people pay for engaging with the world. I’m sure I have, too. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some quiet, fair minded, reasonable people nodding their heads and reading your blog, inside and outside NARA, both. You certainly deserve that.

    One of the points you’ve previously made at your blog about NARA is that it has a closed culture and that when problems arise, it tends to remain behind a wall of silence. I’m not convinced that can’t change and perhaps hasn’t started changing during Mr. Ferriero’s tenure. As to your other points, as you say, much depends on who is in what job and how they relate to change, to diverse feedback, to challenges and pushback. The more open and confident and willing to learn from anyone (as well asto instruct and guide) they are, the less tightly they’ll clutch their power and focus on what is good for their career advancement. If Mr. Ferriero can get people to focus more on what is good for the organization as a whole, and not so much on themselves, that will be a step in the right direction.

    Keep blogging, Kate. Your voice is needed. Very much so. We need more thoughtful engagement in the archival profession.

    posted at 5:31 pm eastern

  2. Thanks to both you and MK for letting us all in on a real conversation that feels truthful and sincere. This feels truly “open” to me.

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