NARA’s draft strategic plan looks to leave paper records management in digital dust

The National Archives specializes in American history, but its latest draft strategic plan pledges to point the agency firmly in the direction of the future.

The Office of Management and Budget is reviewing the plan, which includes the directive that by Jan. 1, 2023 all transferred permanent or temporary records to the National Archives and Records Administration must be in electronic format.

“By far this is the biggest change in the strategic plan and one we believe is really critical to ensure that we continue that transformation to a digital government,” said Laurence Brewer,  NARA’s chief records officer. “If an agency or staff at an agency, if they are creating records after Dec. 31, 2022, and those records have been scheduled and approved by the National Archives as permanent records that need to come to the National Archives, they have to come to us in electronic format. So if it’s not a born digital record, if it is a note, then it would need to be digitized. There are of course going to be some exceptions for every rule; treaties or documents that require a wet signature which we would want the hard copy with the wet signature. There are going to be exceptions along those lines that won’t meet the rule but we are committed to this goal and we certainly will not allow the exceptions to become the rule.”

The plan sets NARA’s strategic goals for fiscal 2018-22. Those goals are to:

  • make access happen.
  • connect with customers.
  • maximize NARA’s value to the nation.
  • build NARA’s future through our people.

Brewer called the plan “bold and aggressive,” with digitization as a common theme.

The hope is to not only communicate NARA’s priorities and directions to staff, Congress, OMB, and long-term customers and stakeholders, but also provide direction for budget requests and IT investments, Brewer said.

“There’s always a lot of balls to juggle and a lot of things you have to keep in the air,” Brewer said. “What we’re trying to do with this plan is continue along the path of where we have been over the last several years. So from my perspective as the chief records officer for the U.S. government, and working directly with agencies on records management, we had issued 5 years ago in 2012 a managing government records directive, where the intent was to modernize the recordkeeping practices across the government, and to help bring about the transition to digital government. This strategic plan extends that journey beyond where we were with the managing government records directive, where our last goal ends in 2019. So now we have some very specific goals in this strategic plan which get us to [2022] and provide some real bold and aggressive targets for us to now reach regarding digitization.”

One of the highlights includes conducting records management practices at 10 percent of agencies per year, which Brewer said fulfill a commitment to increased oversight.

“Through that effective oversight we can learn where there are gaps and risks in records management practices and then work with those agencies to make improvements,” Brewer said. “And then we share results of that work on our website publicly and with other agencies so that we can make corrections and improvements governmentwide.”

The Archives is also looking to improve its workplace environment and prioritize its people. Included in its goal of building a future through employees, NARA pledged that by fiscal 2020, 40 percent of staff at all levels will have taken a formal leadership program.

Also by 2020 NARA said it will fill 85 percent of agency positions within 80 days [the Office of Personnel Management’s “time to hire” standard].

“NARA must have a highly-qualified, highly-motivated, and diverse workforce in order to achieve the agency’s strategic goals and objectives,” the plan stated. “Currently, approximately 53 percent of NARA positions are filled within 80 days. NARA must fill more positions within the 80-day standard in order to secure the best candidates and minimize the disruption of extended vacancies.”

NARA also said it plans to ensure 95 percent of NARA positions have “clear and achievable career paths for employees.”

Another area where NARA is looking to focus for the next few years is  customer service and interaction.

Not only does NARA want to fill 93 percent of requests within the promised timeframe, it also wants a 90 percent customer satisfaction rate, and for citizens to participate in the archiving process.

“NARA encourages the public to engage with their government and explore American history by contributing unique content to the online National Archives Catalog,” the plan stated. “NARA encourages members of the public to add ‘tags’ and transcribe records to improve search results and to make handwritten or difficult-to-read text accessible for a wider audience.”

Brewer said he anticipated some challenges and changes as the plan goes through review, but NARA is prepared to address concerns from customers and stakeholders, and develop new guidance for agencies when it comes to digitization.

“The archivist of the United States has laid out his vision for creating a cutting edge National Archives, where our customers will have access to the nation’s records in more usable formats wherever they are located,” Brewer said. “So while NARA will still be in the paper and analogue records business for decades to come, this change in direction recognizes how agencies are creating records now and allows us to focus our resources in the ever-expanding digital space.”

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