AAOTUS: Improving the Customer Experience

March 2023

Debra Steidel Wall
Acting Archivist of the United States

 In a typical year, millions of people seek information from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for a variety of purposes: veterans asking for proof of service to get benefits; federal employees seeking guidance on records management or access to records; citizens seeking to understand regulations; representatives of organizations interested in grants to make history available; researchers of many types tracking down pieces of historical evidence; museum visitors curious about our history; students and teachers learning how to use primary sources, and more.

 Since the National Archives was established in 1934, our staff have dedicated themselves to making information available and getting it to the people who need it. In more recent years, we have served customers in new and innovative ways, including increasing public access and engagement through the online Catalog and social media; expanding access to museums, exhibits, and public programs in person and virtually; and establishing civic literacy initiatives.

 But we are concerned with more than just providing access. We want to ensure that the entire process—from first contact to product delivery—is efficient and easy to understand and navigate.

 To reach that goal, we have created an Action Plan to Advance Customer Experience at NARA, FY 2022–2026. This plan lays out the steps we will take to better understand customer needs and expectations and modernize our services and communications channels.

 Customer experience is embedded in NARA’s mission, vision, and values. The Action Plan is a companion document to the agency’s Strategic Plan and states NARA's customer experience vision: to deliver equitable and effective services for all, including those who are underserved and underrepresented; to deepen our understanding of their wants, needs, and expectations; and continually improve service design and delivery.

 The Action Plan has five goals based on OMB Circular A-11 Section 280, “Managing Customer Experience and Improving Service Delivery”:

  • Governance (organizational accountability)
  • Customer Understanding (learn more about our customers)
  • Service Design and Improvement (design world-class products and services)
  • Measurement (service excellence from the customer’s perspective)
  • Culture and Organization (equip and empower employees)

In examining customer experience throughout NARA, we looked at the entire agency, recognizing the importance of embedding policy and standards for excellence throughout the organization. In this way, service excellence is not just what we do, but who we are.

 NARA’s approach to service improvement includes three steps: discover, design, deliver. We have recently taken a significant step in the “discovery” phase by issuing our Customer Research Agenda. Before we can make improvements, we need to know how well we are meeting the needs of customers and where we can improve. To formulate the Customer Research Agenda, we held a number of listening sessions, did benchmarking, and gathered insights from NARA staff. The agenda is not an end in itself but a set of questions that will guide us during the discovery phase. It also includes questions that focus on helping NARA understand how it can expand access and participation, including for socially disadvantaged or socially excluded groups it may be missing.

 The Customer Research Agenda is a “living document” that will be updated annually and published on Archives.gov to inform the public of NARA’s most timely priorities for understanding its customers and improving customer experience.

 NARA is one of only a few federal agencies that is attempting to establish an enterprise-wide customer experience function. While speaking to all NARA staff last July, NARA’s Chief Customer Experience Officer Stephanie Bogan shared that representatives of other agencies have reached out to her since the Action Plan was released, asking about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. It’s gratifying to know that our efforts are being recognized and may influence advances in other parts of the federal government.

 At NARA we often talk about our mission—”We drive openness, cultivate public participation, and strengthen our nation’s democracy through equitable public access to high-value government records.” But it’s not just talk. In pursuing excellence in customer experience, we’re showing that how we carry out our mission matters. Our customers should be able to trust and depend on us to consistently deliver highly effective and easy-to-navigate services. We’re dedicated to listening to our customers and continually improving how we serve them.

 If you’d like to participate in or have questions about this process, you may send an email to [email protected].