Embracing Change?: NARA in the 21st century

Disclaimer: The ensuing post is my opinion and NOT the opinion or official stance of my employer.

In her recent blog post, “Step Outside of Our Comfort Zones,” NixoNARA examines the growing philosophy of change embraced by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States and official head of the National Archives and Records Administration.  During the course of reading this eloquent, thought-provoking piece, I was spurred to provide my own response to the post.

Here is the general gist of my comment:

“I wholeheartedly agree with the overall message of being open to change.  And, it’s great to know that change and innovation are being embraced from the top by “The Big Dude” [David S. Ferriero].  What I find problematic, as one in the field, is the slow trickle of this concept from the top-down.  I find, in my work, that I must strike a balance between advocating for change/innovation while being confronted with stagnant ideas and comments of “that’s how we’ve always done it.”  I think as an agency, NARA needs to look long and hard and develop strategies to ensure they foster an [internal] environment that embraces change from the bottom-up.  By doing so, we can meet in the middle.  Active steps need be to taken from the bottom-up in order to take full advantage of the bright minds, young and old, who are brimming with ideas but confronted with complacency, lest we lose this rich, diverse resource.

I wanted to use my blog to further expound on my stance.  Side note: My historian friends are probably tickled pink by my common use of history word choices of “top-down” and “bottom-up.”  But, I digress.

First, what do I mean by the top-down approach of change advocated by Ferriero and others?  In each successive employee meetings, the “powers that be” have openly discussed and solicited feedback from employees to revamp the overall mission statement and vision for the National Archives.  I see this as a convincing attempt to ensure that NARA remains relevant in the 21st century and beyond.  In a rapidly evolving, and more technologically-sauvy world, we must rise to meet the needs of stakeholders, be they the general public and other federal agencies.  In order to do so, we must rework, reframe, or restructure how we do what we do and the types of services we provide.

This type of long-range thinking and planning is sorely needed to ensure NARA’s longevity, relevance, and visibility.  However, where the “rubber has yet to meet the road” is what to do in the interim until these policies take effect.  Here I wish to speak broadly of possible avenues for fostering change.  First, which I think is key, is greater transparency in the decision-making process.  All too often, decisions are made in the upper echelons of the administration with minimal to no consultation with the proverbial “boots on the ground.”  Please note: I acknowledge that the level of transparency varies from region to region and even facility to facility, the overall message is clear transparency, transparency, transparency.

It is here that supervisors are a crucial conduit.  The role of the supervisor is two-fold.  First, they must actively strive within their facilities to foster an environment of inclusion and open lines of communication.  Employees will be less inclined to speak their mind or put forth new ideas if their supervisor does not invite it.  This can be handled in different ways by different people.  An example that comes to mind, is actively listen to what your staff is telling you.  Something as simple as non-verbal cues (i.e. body language) denotes whether or not a supervisor is receptive to the thoughts being put forth.  Additionally, supervisors should create a forum by which employees can put forward new ideas.   And, most importantly, be cognizant that each person on staff is different.  Some employees are embolden enough to speak their mind and put their ideas out there in a staff meeting.  While some may be more inclined to send a discreet email.  All of these avenues must be open.

Supervisors must also strive to do more than give the standard answer of “that’s not possible” or “it’s more complicated than that.”  These very phrases are open to interpretation and more often than not, interpreted as “while your idea is great, I don’t think it will happen.”  Instead, if after numerous discussions with employees, this idea has a chance of improving services or contributing to NARA services in a new way, it is up to the supervisor to become a vocal advocate for it at the next level.

Now, I can’t speak to the higher levels of administration but I believe the situation to be similar.  Inviting open discussion and greater transparency.  We must shake the misguided notion that if someone questions how something is done or suggest an alternative means of accomplishing the same goal, it does not make that person subversive.  Rather, they see something that could be slightly better.

Secondly, I must speak to the employees in NARA’s mist.  By fostering this environment which is supportive to change, can, I believe, inspire current employees to step up and out to voice their suggestions.  In my work alone, I’ve encountered so many wonderful people who have great ideas that could thrust NARA fully into the 21st century.  These are people whose ideas need to be embraced and, with time, mentored into places of leadership.  On the other hand, greater efforts must be made to recruit the best and the brightest.  Please note: I use that term very broadly and loosely.  I think all too often we think of “the best and the brightest” as a synonym for young, younger, youngest.  I believe that not to be the case.  “The best” comes in all shapes, sizes, and ages.  We must embrace that.

We need to make NARA as a whole an attractive option for people looking for government employment.  Revamp the criteria by which people are chosen, simplify the process wherever possible, and adopt the hiring standards of non-government entities.  Rather than a typical over the phone or in-person interview, invite candidates (read: the top picks) to tour your facility, maybe give a presentation something by which you can access not only their job abilities but their personality.  In doing so you find out who they really are and in what way they can serve and contribute to the betterment of your facility.  And, this has the added bonus of weeding out those who, while they sound great on paper, are only interested in a paycheck and not the betterment of the agency.

While this change may meander into the higher administrative policies for hiring, I’ve always been a firm believer that a groundswell of support can push through change like no other force.  Call me an idealist but its what I believe.  I believe I can be the change I want to see in the world.  It’s up to me to radiate that change outward.  Make some waves.

And aren’t we all striving to do better, to be better?  An awesome quote from the playwright George Bernard Shaw comes to mind:

“You see things; and say, “Why?” But I dream things that never were; and I say, “Why not?”

It is the “why not” mentality that needs to be embraced.  It has been embraced from the top.  Now steps need to be taken to ensure that it is embraced from the bottom.  Only then can we meet in the middle and only then can true change happen.

Disclaimer: The ensuing post is my opinion and NOT the opinion or official stance of my employer.


About Ashley S

I'm an archivist!
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4 Responses to Embracing Change?: NARA in the 21st century

  1. nixonara says:

    What a great post! As someone who sometimes wonders if I am too free spirited or have gone too far in candor at my blog (not with David Ferriero, the Big Dude really does have great capacity, but elsewhere), I really liked two sentences. The money quote in your throughtful essay for me? “We must shake the misguided notion that if someone questions how something is done or suggest an alternative means of accomplishing the same goal, it does not make that person subversive. Rather, they see something that could be slightly better.”

    It takes special qualities to be able to shake what you correctly call that misguided notion. Not just in the people involved, of various ranks, but in the environment and culture. And perceived rewards systems matter there, as well. So very much can get in the way, including elements people are afraid to discuss, much less tackle! But for those who can embrace the ability to listen, not just hear–and various elements can make that hard, up and down the line–there can be a worthwhile payoff.

    Total transparency is not possible in some areas of Washington (I’ve run in to some minefields in some related areas myself) but greater effort at achieving it worthwhile, definitely. Getting there means handling risk wisely, something NARA’s old culture didn’t always do well! And I love the way you don’t fall back on stereotypes but understand that people are different in how they communicate and what they can offer. It so brightened my day yesterday just to read those smart insights about differences in your blog post! But as a fellow Star Trek fan, I’m not surprised, grin.

    Seriously, as someone who was part of NARA’s past, and who follows David’s change efforts closely, I am so very glad you are part of the agency’s future.

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