Pandemic-induced backlog sparks new efforts to digitize military records at NARA

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Many federal agencies made the shift to remote work look easy, but the pandemic hasn’t been as kind to agencies that primarily deal with paper.

That’s especially true for the National Archives and Records Administration, which houses 2 million boxes of military and medical records in 15 warehouses at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

NPRC usually responds to 1 million requests for military records each year. The vast majority of records responsive to those requests are paper-based; only 10% are available electronically.

But when NARA sent the NPRC workforce home to work remotely last March, it became much more difficult to respond to routine requests from veterans and other members of the public.

Those records requests piled up, creating a backlog of roughly 500,000 outstanding inquires today. Veterans need those documents to access certain burial services, medical treatment, home loans, burial services and other benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The National Personnel Records Center anticipates it’ll take 18-to-24 months to resolve the backlog, Scott Levins, the NPRC director, said in a recent interview.

But that timeline depends on several factors, including the agency’s ability to work with other federal departments, hire more staff and, most importantly, digitize its existing trove of military records and share them with VA and others.

If it succeeds, NARA believes it’ll emerge as a more efficient and digitally-savvy organization than it was before, and the other agencies that rely on records from the NPRC will grow more productive too.

“What we really need to do is to make it so that we’re able to do this work either on site or remotely, without regard to what the local health conditions are,” Levins said. “For us that involves getting a lot of records digitized.”

At least 50-to-60 employees have been working on site throughout the pandemic, a number that has grown at times as health conditions in the community have changed.

Slightly fewer than 200 employees, or 25% of the NPRC’s 750-person workforce, are working on site today, Levins said. Most agencies are operating at 25% of their normal capacity, per guidelines from the Office of Management and Budget.

“We all know the current situation is untenable. We’re all eager to resolve the backlog that’s grown during the pandemic. But at the same time the agency couldn’t be prouder of the people who have been working on site throughout the pandemic, even during the scariest times, nor could they be more committed to their health,” said Levins, who noted that one-third of the NARA workforce are veterans. David Ferriero, the chief archivist, is a Vietnam veteran.

Most NPRC employees are working on emergency records requests, digitizing documents responsive to those requests and ingesting them into NARA’s systems so those working from home can complete them.

NARA partners with VA, asks DoD for help

Like many agencies during the pandemic, NARA purchased laptops, monitors and other equipment for employees to complete records requests remotely.

“When we first reduced our onsite capacity back in March 2020, very few our of employees had laptop computers, let alone the systems to move digital records electronically in a secure way,” said Levins, who previously thought it was “inconceivable” that the work of the NPRC could ever go virtual.

The NPRC also entered into an inter-agency agreement to use VA’s enterprise-wide mail system, Levins said. Private sector vendors scan the mail, digitize it and organize it in a portal that presents the documents in a logical way to the right VA office.

“We leveraged that; we entered into an agreement with the VA and shipped all of our raw mail to a VA scanning vendor,” Levins said. “They’re scanning that right now; they’re about half the way through all the raw mail that piled up. Now our staff can access that remotely, create the transactions in a production system and release them in our workload.”

VA has helped in other ways. The department detailed employees to the NPRC to help process emergency records requests from veterans, and it worked with NARA to create multiple employee shifts within the work day.

Today, NPRC employees work a total of 13 hours across multiple shifts each day, weekends included. The department also allowed NPRC employees to come directly to a VA location nearby to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

VA has an interest in seeing the NPRC succeed, in part, because it relies on NARA for those documents, which are necessary to process disability claims.

Before the pandemic, VA requested about 6,300 records from the NPRC each week. Levins said the NPRC processed 2,500 weekly requests from VA during the winter months when the pandemic was at its worst.

“Currently we’ve increased that to consistently over 10,000 requests a week. The backlog’s reached a point where it’s leveled off; it’s not growing any further,” Levins said. “But what we need to do is reverse the trend and start bringing it down, and we do that by leveraging technology and additional resources at the same time.”

The NPRC has received funding to hire 100 additional employees, and VA has funding to kick off military record digitization efforts in earnest. The department is working with a private vendor to set up additional digitization capabilities inside the NPRC, Levins said.

“Their interest lies in making all these records available electronically because it will speed their adjudication cycle time,” he said of the VA. “If the records are already available electronically they won’t have to retrieve them from us and digitize them; they’ll already have them. It’s an issue that will impact both agencies and improve services at both agencies.”

NARA has also asked the Defense Department for help. It sent a request for pandemic assistance to the Pentagon last month, asking DoD to send personnel and resources to the NPRC to help refile thousands of paper records.

“We could also use additional resources for doing some of the digitization,” Levins said. “The VA is working on expanding its resources and NARA is working with the VA to develop a technical solution so that we can reference and share the electronic records with the VA. But it’s not in place today. Until that’s in place were going to continue scanning these records onsite, but we could use DoD resources to do that kind of work as well.”

As of late last week, NARA hasn’t yet heard back from DoD, though Levins said the NPRC has started the administrative work on an inter-agency agreement should the Pentagon respond favorably.

In the meantime, NARA and the NPRC envision a future where, because of the agency’s digitization efforts, sharing military records across multiple agencies is simpler and faster.

Digitizing military records will make it easier for NPRC employees to redact certain personal information, Levins said. The process itself should grow faster, since employees no longer need to pass a single piece of paper from person to person.

“I’ve certainly realized and I think a lot of the workforce is realizing that as challenging and as frustrating as it’s been throughout the pandemic, because of the things we’re doing now, we’re going to come out of this more efficient than we ever were any time prior to that,” he said.

Digitization and modernization efforts will also change the way employees work, said Levins. Employees often ask him whether telework will become permanent.

“I’m pretty sure that we’re not going to invest all the resources into digitizing records and equipping staff with the tools they need to work at home, only to tell them all to get back to the office,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll be some sort of hybrid approach when the pandemic is behind us.”

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