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Innovation Means Working Smarter, Together

by on January 9, 2014

Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Wright, left, with Standards and Authorities Director John Martinez, right

Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Wright, left, with Standards and Authorities Director John Martinez, right

The struggle to achieve what seems impossible. Everybody goes through it at some point in their lives, and our Agency is no exception. So it was with some joy that I stumbled this weekend on a classic 2005 article from our magazine Prologue, “Secrecy and Salesmanship in the Struggle for NARA’s Independence.”

Penned by former Archivist Robert M. Warner, it describes the successful tactics he and his colleagues used to set in motion the Agency’s re-establishment as a standalone organization in 1985—reversing the1950 law that made NARA a component of another agency, the GSA.

At the time, employees were dismayed by their absorption into an agency unrelated to the archival mission. As Warner writes, they understood that the transfer was a symbolic act, in which “a cultural institution dedicated to preserving the greatest documents of American history became a cog in the housekeeping wheel of government.”

The passion Warner describes struck a familiar chord in me. As the Chief Innovation Officer, I also hear the same visceral discomfort, the fear that what we describe as “innovation” may put the core mission in danger.

It is frequently a paradox of organizations that what seems positive to the outside world feels threatening on the inside. But the concern is real: Given limited resources and our emphasis on promoting public access to the records, will preservation itself become at-risk?

Of course not. Innovation belongs to all parts of the agency and all aspects of the mission as we confront a multitude of challenges, including describing and digitizing our records.

When you consider it, preservation and access fit right together. The more uniformly and quickly we archive the records, the more state-of-the-art our preservation methods, and the faster we digitize and display everything, the better.

This leads to the second reason I found this article so intriguing. Not only did it show how the present often echoes the past, it also provided a roadmap for making positive change happen today. And we must transform the status quo in an environment where the agency charged with holding the nation’s most precious records is being virtually flooded, and the dam is at risk of breaking.  Debra S. Wall, Deputy Archivist of the United States put it well in 2011 when she said: ”We’re going to minimize redundancies, streamline decision-making, and lay the foundation for a very different way of doing business.”

At NARA, what works to make change happen is a core group of people who believe genuinely in the vision of the future, meeting regularly without fanfare, in an environment that welcomes the free exchange of ideas. These change agents work with concerned stake-holders on the inside and on the outside—cultural institutions, members of Congress, the press, and others. The ultimate goal is clear and simple, compelling and easy to visualize. And the markers of victory are simple and dramatic progress.

Working together to launch an F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 154 (VF-154) "Black Knights," from the flight deck of the USS KITTY HAWK (CV 63)

Working together to launch an F-14A Tomcat, Fighter Squadron 154 (VF-154) “Black Knights,” from the flight deck of the USS KITTY HAWK (CV 63), National Archives Identifier 6640641

I especially appreciated the way Archivist Warner ended his article. It perfectly captures the deep emotions that all of us at NARA feel about how important it is that we do our jobs right and stand up for our mission when we believe it is being threatened:

“This brief narration of the steps in the struggle for independence cannot convey the emotions involved. Throughout the complex maneuvering there were moments of great disappointment, worry, and frustration as well as elation, excitement, and joy.

The history of the United States has inherent value to us as a Nation. It is our collective identity; it binds us as one. When we think about innovative ways to move the NARA mission forward, it’s important to remember that there are no “good guys” or “bad guys” when it comes to saving our records for the sake of generations to come.


Maarja Krusten January 10, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Ms. Wright, I read your inaugural dispatch from Innovation. I so was hoping that you, as a perceived power player with a role in changing the agency culture, would use open framing in the first essay you wrote for the Office of Innovation. A unit for which I’ve enumerated the challenges at my own blog, as in my comment under a post by one of your subordinates (“Innovation: Is there a Recipe?’) What might have been, had you asked us how you can enlarge trust zones for V, a unit many in NARA regard as elite. And how to make us feel as if you see us as your partners. Such questions would have been a dramatic sign of a new way of doing things. And a wonderful sign that NARA truly is looking to change. To ask those of us who conceptually support Transformation (oh, the aspirational vision of the Charter for Change is (was?) so beautiful!) what we find to be barriers to actual “free” discussion and engagement inside and with NARA. In V, in the rest of NARA. That would have been transformative! Technically, I have the option of responding at my blog. But really, as an old Washington hand who understands the past and present environment and culture at NARA very well, I see in the closed framing of your post that I don’t have that option. A learning moment, so there’s that.

Maarja Krusten January 12, 2014 at 1:32 pm

For a number of reasons related to your position in NARA, I feel constrained from being able to address at my blog or here specific points in your essay, Ms. Wright. However, I did write a post which reflects where I had hoped when I signed on to support the Charter for Change where NARA would be four years in to Transformation. My Saturday post, “Spill the feels,” focuses on partnership, perceptions, feedback and open communications.

NARA’s blogs do not draw as many comments as I would like to see them do. I’ve had my say at this new blog, and then some, for now. Transformation has been the topic of many deep, candid conversations I’ve had with people at NARA since 2011. But I don’t want to spam the Innovations blog. So I’ll step back and watch what happens. In that regard, my @Nixonara Twitter feed for Saturday, January 11, showed some interesting reactions to my post by a NARA official, public comments which I appreciated.

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