About the National Archives

Transcript of Strategic Plan

Webcast by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
July 11, 2005


[Webcast Introduction]

Allen Weinstein: Hello, and welcome to all of you in this special web cast. I’m Allen Weinstein, for those of you who haven’t met me yet, I’m the new Archivist of the United States and I will be at all of your installations before the year is out. You can keep that as a promise. Now, if you have pagers and cell phones in the auditorium here in Archives I, please turn them off. If you have pagers and cell phones anywhere else, we don’t care.

[applause]

Now, today I want to discuss with you, and as many NARA colleagues as possible, a major new initiative. We’ve launched a very important year-long process, and we need the insight, we need the input of all of NARA staff in updating our 10-year strategic plan. The strategic plan, as you probably know, is a government must; we have no choice, we have to have the strategic plan. It’s a core document that incorporates mission and vision statements and defines the direction that Archives initiatives take. It describes our overall strategic goals and is used by the Congress, the President and our stakeholders to measure NARA’s performance and to hold it accountable. And frankly, the plan also helps you, the staff, to define your work and to obtain the resources needed to meet your objectives. Now I think I know what some of you are saying right now. You’re saying, "The strategic plan? That doesn’t sound like very exciting reading, that’s not a page turner, is it? " And the process to development might strike you as being rather tedious. Well, it’s anything but. Consider this. You know your jobs better than anyone else, we understand that. But wouldn't you like to say what that job will be like in 2017, for example? In the next decade. Wouldn’t you want to know what the National Archives will be like in 2017? And for that matter, wouldn't you like to have some stake in your future? I think you would, we think you would, and we certainly want a stake in our future.

This web cast is joined by several members of the senior staff. I’d like to share with you the process we're going through with the new strategic plan and why we’re taking on this effort. And over the next few weeks you will have an opportunity to take part in feedback sessions at your place of work, and they’re genuine feedback sessions, we will be listening and learning to what you say. Welcome to our new friends, if you’re just joining us now. I think they must be from a different time period, I think [unintelligible]. The senior staff will use the information collected at these sessions along with comments of NARA’s stakeholders to draft a new strategic plan in the spring of next year, and then you’ll have yet another chance to offer your ideas before the final plan is published in September 2006. Now, unless the message has not gotten through, we want your input, we want your involvement, we want you to participate in this process. With me to discuss these issues are three members of our senior staff well known to most of you, all of whom are working hard to develop this strategic plan: Sharon Fawcett, Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries, Michael Kurtz, Assistant Archivist for Records Services in Washington, and Tom Mills, Assistant Archivist for Regional Records Services. Let's hear it for our three [unintelligible].

[applause]

That’s enough, they'll want a raise.

[laughter]

I've laid out for my three colleagues a set of questions which are among those most commonly raised regarding the effort to develop a new strategic plan. And to give them time to reflect on these, I will outline three major queries in the group before turning to Sharon, Michael and Tom for response. Later in this time period I will raise with them some thoughtful questions from NARA colleagues around the country. First, however, the in-house questions.

Question number one: strategic planning forces you to take stock in what you achieved before setting out for future goals. NARA’s current strategic plan has moved us very effectively into the 21st century, we all agree on that, and it has focused us on two challenges in particular, both the complex challenges of electronic records archiving and that of assisting other government agencies and better managing their records. Now, what have we learned from NARA’s major efforts over the past decade? We'll come back to that question.

Question two, a number of you might ask at this point: why bother revising the strategic plan if it’s working so well? Why should NARA staff care about this activity? This is question number two.

Question number three, the operational question: what should staff expect over the coming months as the strategic planning process proceeds. What will NARA colleagues encounter in the focus groups and other aspects of planning the strategic plan? This is a legitimate question, and we’ll get back to it.

Finally, an obvious but extremely important process point, if I may make it, given the fact that so many employees and stakeholders have differing viewpoints on the issues we will be reviewing in the plan, how can we/how should we deal with the range of views which do not make it into the final document? And with deep disagreements on matters of consequence? My short answer is simple, we will deal with such disagreements by listening seriously with civility, with mutual respect and with sensitivity to the views of others.

And on this note, I want to turn the discussion over to my three able senior colleagues. Beginning with question number one, Michael, you take a hand in responding, what have we learned in the last ten years?

Michael Kurtz: I think Allen, in talking about the strategic plan and implementing the strategic plan through the Electronic Records Archives or the Records Management Initiative, or achieving the National Archives Experience. I think over the last ten years we've learned we need partnerships, both strategic partnerships with Congress, with OMB and the White House, with various constituent groups to really make our dreams come true and to achieve our mission.

Allen Weinstein: We’ll go around but let's have one person respond to each question initially. Tom, this question is yours. It's the "why bother " question. I turn to Tom Mills to find out why bother realizing the plan? Why should NARA staff really care about this if things are going so well?

Thomas Mills: Well, I tend to believe that the best time to look to the future and change a plan is when things are going well rather than waiting until there is a crisis. I think we all realize there are a number of challenges out there. The changes taking place on the Internet are even greater than we could have imagined five years ago. The challenges of electronic records, especially in my program, the records center program, are huge, and we haven't quite got there as to exactly what our vision is, how we’re going to meet them. So there are a number of key challenges I think we all have to face in the future. Another one is the impact of those changes in the environment on our research role. These changes are affecting every single person who works at NARA at every level, so we need to address those now rather than waiting until a crisis occurs.

Allen Weinstein: Sharon, what should staff expect from this process?

Sharon Fawcett: Well, the senior staff, those of us here on the stage and the other office heads and staff directors, have been working to craft a vision and a mission statement, and we struggled to put the words in the right order and find exactly the right words, and while we were doing that process someone said, "Well shouldn't we just be waiting and not trying to get this exactly right? " Because we want to go out to the staff, gauge their reactions and get their input so that we can build a vision and a mission that resonates with the staff. It's not just about what we think because we know that you all know your jobs and know the work and know what our customers need more than anyone. We’ve trained a cadre of about 40 facilitators drawn from the staff around the country, they’ll be traveling to each of our sites and meeting with you in small groups to get your interaction on the vision and the mission statement. A mission is focusing on what we do, what our responsibilities are, what our jobs are. Our vision is where we want to be, the legacy that we want to leave. Tomorrow, you can go to the NARA at Work site and click on the banner link that will take you to the site where you can register for these sessions. We hope that you’ll all want to do this and you’ll be eager to participate; we’re eager to hear from you.

Allen Weinstein: It's free for all time. Who’d like to answer [unintelligible]?

Michael Kurtz: Well Allen, I think one of the things that’s really important for us to focus as we look ahead for the next ten years is the increasing demand that we digitize and make holdings available online. And the only way to do that is through partnerships, and I think we have some exciting possibilities that way. But I think that’s the next frontier, is to really make this National Archives and our holdings available to anyone and everyone.

Allen Weinstein: Absolutely.

Sharon Fawcett: Well, I think also, Michael, that we’ve learned that teachers are really eager to use primary sources curriculum in teaching history. Over the past ten years our libraries have moved long beyond the docent-led tours of the museum to establishing an education classroom experience. The Truman Library, in partnership with the Truman Institute, brings kids in for an all-day experience in presidential decision-making. They use the contemporary documents that Truman and his advisers used to arrive at their own decisions about how to deal with the issues of those times. And often they’re different than the decisions that Truman arrived at, but it teaches them about the process. Our workshops are filled, we have waiting lists. Our libraries and regions are partnering with local school districts to gain "Teach For America " grants. I think we also need to look at our museum programs and how they can engage people, new Americans, the younger generation of people, to come to our libraries and get excited about history.

Allen Weinstein: Tom?

Thomas Mills: I’d like to pick up on what Sharon was talking about. One of the lessons from all of that and from other examples I would give within NARA is we’ve learned within the last 10 years that we can make dramatic changes. Just look at — I mean, from my perspective in NARA, we started a revolving fund records center program, which has been successful, thanks to my colleagues here especially, every year it’s been in existence. We completely reengineered how we do business at the St. Louis National Personnel Records Center. And as my friend John Constance would concur, Congress and OMB have recognized the great changes we’ve made. So we collectively at NARA can make dramatic changes. And I’m not saying we necessarily need to make those kinds of dramatic changes in the future, but as we’re thinking about a strategic plan, that’s what we can build on.

Allen Weinstein: It's not change for the sake of change, it's change for a purpose and we’ve done it that way. Take the educational area, the discussion. One of the things that I asked some of our colleagues to do is to do an inventory of the various educational programs that we’ve been doing already, without additional funding. It’s an extraordinary inventory when you come to think of it. If you stop to think about what each and every segment of the NARA community has been doing and put it all in one document, it’s very impressive reading. That’s point number one. Point number two, for those who think that the primary purpose of the strategic plan is to educate the new Archivist, I can assure you, you’re right.

[laughter]

At one level, this has been an invaluable part of my education and will continue to be, and I thank you all for it. Now, we have some questions submitted by NARA staff by way of email. The first one comes from Reed Whitaker, who asks, "Is NARA leadership considering reorganizing offices to more adequately reflect the agency’s mission, programs and brand? "

Michael Kurtz: Allen, I’ll take a shot at that. I think one of the important things that’s going on in the agency right now is this entire re-engineering of all our work processes in anticipation of the arrival of the Electronic Records Archives, and implementing it. And I think there’s going to be a variety of organizational changes that will flow from more effective and better streamlined work processes, and I don't think we’ll just have reorganizations for the sake of reorganizations, but I think they’ll flow in a meaningful way out of what makes sense for accomplishing our work and for serving our customers.

Sharon Fawcett: Yes mike, the technology changes how we do our work. In presidential records alone we have the daunting challenge of 16 million e-mail messages from the Clinton administration. The Bush administration is producing email at the rate of one million messages a month. That is going to be close to 100 million messages at the end of the administration, not to count the textual materials. We have to come up with new ways of organizing this work and providing access to these materials. We can't do it in the traditional ways we have done, so it’s important to look at the processes of change.

Thomas Mills: Yeah, I think it’s very similar to what we tell our customers. I mean, records are part of supporting our business process. Well, organization staff are part of supporting our business process and our and service to customers. That’s primary, that will drive where we are going to go in the future, and again, as I said before, no change for change's sake but —

Allen Weinstein: So to return to the question, to Reed’s question, is NARA leadership considering reorganization officers to more adequately reflect the agency’s mission, programs and brand? I think Reed, as I listen to my colleagues’ answers, I think the answer is yes, but we haven’t really settled on any particular reorganization structure at this stage of the game. Is that a fair statement?

Michael Kurtz: Yes.

Thomas Mills: Yes.

Sharon Fawcett: Mmm-hmm.

Allen Weinstein: Mmm-hmm, good. You all are witnesses to the fact that —

[laughter]

Thomas Mills: We have an open mind on this issue.

[laughter]

Allen Weinstein: Next question, from Ben Pazillo [spelled phonetically], NLRR, "Will NARA's mission statement be re-evaluated during the strategic planning? " I’ll answer that one, the answer is yes. How will it be re-evaluated? Well, at this point I think we’d like to get as much input as we can before we issue any particular documents in that regard. Anyone care to add to that?

Thomas Mills: Yeah, I think that’ll be part of the discussion that will take place in the coming weeks.

Allen Weinstein: Which brings us to the next question. "Can you address " -- this is from Kathleen Williams at NHPRC, "Can you address what you think is the most successful method for us to use in synchronizing the Archives annual planning and budget processes while at the same time building in a more fluid approach to take advantage to unplanned-for situations as they arise? " Good question.

Sharon Fawcett: Well, I think it’s important to remember that the strategic plan is not a static document at all. We are, in the federal government, somewhat hampered in that we have a planning process that’s two years out. Currently, we're working on the 2007 budget; this is only 2005. So to think that right now we have to conceive of what we have to do be doing in 2007 is a challenge for all of us, and we’re doing it based on what is the current strategic plan. We're working on a timeline to align this process with when we have to submit our 2008 plan so that whatever goals, mission that we formulate now will be used to adjust the kind of budget that we submit in 2008. I think it’s also important to remember that the process undergoes a complete evaluation every three years. We can do it more quickly than that. If things change, if we have new partnership opportunities, if there’s a change in the national direction, it’s imperative that we open up the plan and look at it so that we can stay current with what our needs are and be flexible about our future.

Thomas Mills: I would add to that probably the biggest and best resource we have is the staff. And I think -- my experience is, as a staff, collectively, we’re flexible, we can meet challenges, and I challenge people in my office, for example, to yes, keep up with what we’re doing and what we’re required to do under those requirements in the strategic plan that we report, but we can also do more. And it happens; the educational programs are a case in point. So I think there’s flexibility built into our system that is embodied in all the staff who work here. We can use that as our key resource as needed if we need to move resources in different areas.

Michael Kurtz: I really agree with Tom, I think the ability to jump on unexpected opportunities, and I think the National Archives experience was in many ways an unexpected opportunity that we took tremendous advantage of. And as we look to put the National Archives Experience on the Web and other initiatives such as that, the organization has to stay flexible, and I think we will and not just hidebound to a plan as drafted.

Allen Weinstein: Or in other words, we budget for the unexpected. And we will continue doing that. In fact, let me make a point, colleagues, I will give you one final round before we break this, but let me make a point about the quality of what we would like back from everybody, the response we’d like back. You may want to think about what, in my view, I always called the "Stephen Young" test. Now, none of you know who Stephen Young is any longer but he was a US senator from Ohio, and when he received particularly angry, uncreative, unhelpful, negative mail of a scurrilous nature, he had a stamped response that he stamped on each letter saying, "Dear sir or madam, I thought you would like to know that some lunatic has signed your name to this letter and sent it along to me. "

[laughter]

We're not looking for a gripe session. If there are complaints there are channels for dealing with those complaints. We're looking for creativity, we’re looking for new initiatives, we’re looking for exactly the innovative suggestions that we can incorporate into the plan, and I think we’re going to get many of them, I know we have gotten a number already. Final words?

Sharon Fawcett: Well, I do think that as we’ve looked ahead and looked at what we’re doing now, it’s time to reevaluate our strategic plan. And the libraries and with the National Archives experience and the interest in the regional archives, we are interested in building a much more interactive system. The current strategic plan really doesn’t promote that kind of interactive activity. We're in the process of building a timeline of the presidency that will bring to the public in one place the issues, the pictures, the documents that relate to a particular activity, say, the Vietnam war. Imagine being able to go to one place and find the whole history of Vietnam, from its roots in colonialism to the first troops that went in under Eisenhower to the assassination at the end of the of the Kennedy administration, the build up of the war, and the building controversy in the Johnson administration, the expansion of the war in Nixon, the collapse in Ford, and the impact that war has had on the leaders today who grew up during the Vietnam war. So that’s the kind of thing that we want to do in the future. If it’s important for us to do that then it’s important for us to capture that in the mission statement, in our goals and as we move forward into the future.

Allen Weinstein: Thank you, Sharon.

Michael Kurtz: I mean, I’m really hoping that what comes out of this process in working with the staff are some really good and clear ideas about goals and directions and strategies. I think it’s important to spend time on the mission and vision, but what will really will drive our activities are the goals, and if they are well crafted and really strategic they will really push this organization forward.

Allen Weinstein:Tom?

Thomas Mills: I can’t agree more. There are a lot of challenges out there and we need to turn those challenges into opportunities. I tend to think that we here, collectively, are a very optimistic group, and we’re looking at those challenges as real opportunities. And the National Archives is in the middle of the information world, which is where a lot of opportunities are, information and education. It’s a great opportunity for us and I hope all of the staff will take advantage of that opportunity. We do need their ideas.

Allen Weinstein: Thank you. I've been on this job for less than five months and I've learned a variety of things. One of the things that I’ve learned and have said over and over and over to audiences on the Hill, to people in the White House, the President of the United States, to congressional leaders, to journalists — in fact, I just talked to a Washington Post reporter at lunch today -- is that we have, at NARA, the most talented bureaucracy — I always hesitate to use the word "bureaucracy " — we have the most talented group of civil servants, of scholars, of archivists, of preservationists, of people in every walk of the NARA family, that you can find in the government. You can’t get any more talented than this group. And that’s why my expectations are very high for what we will come back from all of you as this process moves along on this strategic plan. Now, I wish we had time for more questions, we don't, but I would like to say to those of you out there, you know how to reach us, you know how to get this job done. I have two remaining words — two remaining words -- for all of you at NARA facilities throughout the country as we wrap up this web cast. The two remaining words are "please engage, please engage, please engage. " Join in every in every way available in development of the strategic plan, follow carefully the notices that will be distributed regarding the process of planning the plan, check the staff bulletins, ask your colleagues for information, keep attuned to developments, and thank you. My thanks to Sharon Fawcett, Michael Kurtz and Tom Mills for joining me in this discussion. My appreciation also to especially to Lew Bellardo to Susan Ashtianie and to others who have been here in Washington who have been working diligently on the strategic plan, and thanks to those in and out of NARA who have submitted comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail. Most importantly, thanks to all of you here and elsewhere in the country who showed up for this web cast. And I guess there's nothing more to say except thank you for taking part, stay tuned, the work continues. Thanks a lot.

[applause]

[end of transcript]

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