NARA’s Future Lies with Its Staff

12/31/2014 12:00 am

By David S. Ferriero
Archivist of the United States

My past three columns have focused on three of the four goals of our new Strategic Plan--Make Access Happen, Connect with Customers, and Maximize NARA’s Value to Our Nation.

The fourth, and most important, goal focuses attention on the staff: Build Our Future Through Our People. Our success in achieving the vision articulated in the plan depends upon a well trained, informed, and supported staff.

A staff of more than 3,000 individuals in more than 40 facilities across the country needs to have the tools to succeed, grow, and advance at the National Archives or to take those skills to another Federal or non-government entity. We have a responsibility to train the workforce of the future.

The goal has four initiatives:

Foster an employee development culture to promote learning and leadership by all.

Creating a learning agency means providing educational and experiential opportunities, benchmarking best practices, adopting and adapting what fits, and constantly assessing the effectiveness and impact of our offerings. This culture fosters collaboration between staff and supervisors in creating a development plan tailored to the needs of the individual and the agency.

One of the pillars of our Transformation Plan is to proclaim ourselves an agency of leaders. That means we deliberately seek input from the staff, create opportunities for staff contribution, break down the communication barriers that prevent full participation, and celebrate the great ideas generated in this new culture.

A learning organization keeps on learning. We will act, revise, test, and grow.

Cultivate a robust, well-connected internal communications environment to support informed action at all levels.

Our experiment with an internal collaboration tool has demonstrated the power of technology in connecting a geographically diverse staff. Much of the work of the agency is now conducted online, affinity groups across the country are sharing best practices and solving problems collaboratively, and a new level of interconnectivity has been achieved.

This is a wonderful start to improving internal communication, but won’t be the only initiative in this area. A culture that encourages communication, actively trains staff on best practices—listening, paraphrasing, group dynamics, written vs. spoken communication, etc.

Managers and supervisors play an important role in the communication chain as role models, teachers, and mentors. Information is power and communication is the tool to empower our staff.

Implement innovative practices and tools to recruit, sustain, and retain a 21st-century workforce.

Another of our Transformation pillars is A Great Place to Work. I want NARA to be THE place people want to work. I want recruitment to be so easy we have created a place where staff is supported and has opportunities for learning, advancement, and contribution. And I want to retain our great staff because they feel valued, appreciated, and proud to be contributing to mission of the agency.

Create new career paths for NARA employes to ensure that we have the necessary competencies and skills in a digital environment.

We have made a commitment to create career paths for staff at the National Archives. When one signs on to work here, we need to provide a glimpse of what a career might look like for that individual. And we need to create the path along which that individual might travel to achieve that long term relationship with this agency.

We have started this analysis with the 1420 and 1421 series for archives aides, archives technicians and archivists. Individuals in these series comprise half of our entire staff.    

This foundational work will set the stage for review of other occupational series until all employees can find and follow their path to a rewarding career at NARA.

We won’t consider our job done just because we reach our strategic goals. Whatever comes out of it must be sustained for future generations of the staff of the Archives of the United States.

The National Archives is full of treasures---the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, historic treaties, landmark legislation, secret war plans, census records back to 1790, and so much more.

But, as I have said before, the greatest treasures are the ones that go home at night—the staff members who are custodians of all the records and artifacts that tell the nation’s story.

Human motivation psychologist Edward Deci has written that human beings have an “inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise their capacities, to explore, and to learn.” That is the culture we strive to foster.