NARA sets workforce diversity goals, aims to put more records online, as part of strategic plan

The National Archives and Records Administration is making the Biden administration’s governmentwide focus on diversity, equity and inclusion a strategic focus for the next four years, and is committed to making more of its holdings available to the public online.

NARA’s draft strategic plan released earlier this month sets goals through fiscal 2026, sets performance targets and leadership goals for the agency, and also looks to build on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency expects to submit its draft strategy to the Office of Management and Budget in September, and will publish the final strategy in February.

NARA’s Chief Records Officer Laurence Brewer said that under the strategic plan, the agency will increase the diversity of its mission-critical GS-12 and above workforce to more closely reflect the demographics of the country.

By 2026, NARA will also increase the frequency of coaching that agency employees receive by 50%, to improve the performance and retention of its workforce. The agency is also planning to increase the number of employees who believe the agency provides career advancement opportunities by 50%.

“We’re trying to engender a NARA workforce that is built upon civil interaction, equity, inclusiveness, that promotes engagement and connectedness of everybody that works for the National Archives,” Brewer said Tuesday at bimonthly records and information discussion group hosted by NARA.

Brewer said NARA, in adopting these diversity and inclusion goals, will allow employees to feel connected to the agency’s mission and contribute to their full potential.

The agency has already taken some steps in achieving these goals. A NARA task force on racism released recommendations in June outlining ways the agency can address issues of racial inequality in both our customer-facing operations and internally within the agency.

“We are acknowledging that there are many different American experiences and we want to make sure that we acknowledge that and provide that level of attention to the differing perspectives,” Brewer said.

Under this strategic plan, NARA will also accelerate digital access to its holdings in an effort to improve its public-facing services.

NARA will digitize 500 million pages of records by 2026 and make them available online to the public through the National Archives Catalog. The agency will reduce the time it takes to start complex Freedom of Information Act requests and have 95% of all customer requests ready within the promised window of time.

Finally, NARA will collaborate with traditionally underserved communities to correct “outdated and anachronistic descriptions” in the catalog and prioritize citizen engagement projects that increase access to records that are important to underserved communities.

In terms of steps NARA is taking today to improve customer experience, Jay Trainer, NARA’S executive for agency services, said the agency has allocated extra funding to the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to tackle a backlog of veterans’ requests for official military personnel files,

“The major ingredient that will help us improve the servicing of personnel requests in St. Louis will be for the country to improve the health metrics with the pandemic,” Trainer said.

The vast majority of the center’s records are not available electronically, and the pandemic has limited staffing at the center. NPRC in June had a backlog of about 500,000 requests from veterans who need documents to access burial services, medical treatment, home loans and other benefits from the Veterans Affairs Department.

Scott Levins, the National Personnel Records Center’s director, said in a recent interview he expects it will take 18-to-24 months to resolve the backlog.

Meanwhile, nine of NARA’s Federal Records Centers are closed, and eight are operating in Phase One of reopening, meaning they can have up to 20% of staff in the building at a time.

In light of these challenges, NARA is launching a records management assessment to better understand how agencies are handling records workloads during the pandemic, how they used collaborative tools to work with each other, and determine NARA needs to update its records management guidance to reflect these changes.

Brewer said NARA, in partnership with the General Services Administration, has already held focus groups with agencies.

“Coming out of this pandemic, it’s just even more important to really understand how we work, how the records support the way we work, and making sure that we have the right guidance out to all of you to make sure the records are well managed,” he said.

NARA, meanwhile, is consulting with OMB to determine whether it is still feasible to no longer accept paper records from agencies beyond December 2022, as mandated by a 2019 OMB-NARA joint memo. 

Brewer said NARA understands the challenge agencies will likely face in meeting the deadline, given the hurdles posed by the pandemic, but said NARA can’t independently revise the memo’s requirements because it is a joint memo with OMB.

“My advice to all of you is to keep working toward those goals of fully digital government to the greatest extent possible given how we are working today, and hopefully we will be able to bring the memo, the strategic plan all into alignment sometime soon,” Brewer said.

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