The Big Dude’s Transformation Challenges

The Big Dude (David S. Ferriero), Nixonara (Maarja Krusten), The Cool Dude (Tim Naftali)

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is about to complete a major re-organization first described last year in “A Charter for Change.” As a former employee of NARA’s Nixon Presidential Materials Project, as a federal official who depends on the National Archives in my current work, and as a customer, I’m watching with great interest. I’m all about laughter, at heart (that so much is the real me).  But as much as I enjoy sharing stories of meeting Tim Naftali, sitting with the Big Dude (aka AOTUS David S. Ferriero), being a VIP guest on July 4, and greeting old friends with exuberance, there are many challenging archival and record keeping topics to cover here at Nixonara. It’s time to turn again to some of them now.

That’s not to say the real me doesn’t lurk beneath the surface, you’ll see flashes from time to time. Indeed, I may have startled some of the people using the #TRLN hashtag on Monday by tweeting about Ferriero’s July 25 keynote at the Triangle Regional Libraries Network conference this way.

Undoubtedly, Ferriero is used to more respectful appellations and formal modes of address than the Big Dude. Those who know him from his earlier positions at Duke and the New York Public Library and at MIT must have been mystified at the lightheartedness of my tweet. My quirkiness aside, the post to which I linked is well worth considering for the insights it gives into the chief’s publicly shared thoughts on where NARA is headed. It also provides an opportunity for me to share some concerns about Fedland, some of which hamper the National Archives and may limit what the Big Dude is trying to achieve.

A blogger at the Preservation and Conservation Administration News summarized AOTUS’s speech in a post published late Monday afternoon. She said he observed of lessons learned so far at NARA that the further away people were from the top, the less they felt their voices were heard. She added that AOTUS said employees should feel as if they are part of one organization. Other lessons from Ferriero? Developing a culture of leadership is important and employees are an organization’s primary asset.

She listed some other points, two of which caught my eye. I’ll touch on the easy one first, then tackle the hard one.

The blogger wrote that AOTUS had said “customers don’t come first, employees do.” That’s largely right because if your employees are unhappy or stressed out or distrustful of you, it can have a significant impact on your organization.  I’ve spent some time in recent days thinking of punishment as a tool for controlling behavior and what rewards systems say about fundamental values. 

I’m not going to rehash my Nixon stuff. Longtime blog readers know the story although why things got to a point where they imploded during the G. H. W. Bush administration still is not entirely clear to me.   Importantly, the Nixon Presidential Library seems to be in a stable situation right now, for which I am grateful. The Federal director of the library, NARA’s Tim Naftali, has accomplished a great deal during Ferriero’s tenure.  I’ll write more about Nixon issues soon, including about a new online exhibit that just went up, but that’s not the focus of this post.


My point is that no leader ever will win over the hearts and minds of all whom he leads. But if he works hard to signal his commitment to treating employees with respect and as partners in achieving larger goals, the organization has a greater chance of weathering stormy seas than if he has not. As the Big Dude has written, social media tools can signal an agency’s personality to outsiders (internal messaging takes other forms). In the best case scenarios, the publicly stated values align with those shown in private behavior.  Ferriero often uses AOTUS’ blog to showcase the accomplishments of people in various units at NARA, most recently those working in conservation. For those of us on the outside, it’s nice to see NARA peeps being valued for work well done.

The blogger also quoted Ferriero as saying archival organizations should look beyond themselves for models of good customer service. He cited American Express and Zappos. I liked the post that AOTUS recently put up about Zappos’s seeming culture, especially the line about workplaces needing some fun and even a little weirdness. Definitely resonated with me. I’m not at heart a Debbie Downer although like everyone else, I confront serious situations all the time and try to figure out ways to work through them.

What is important to note here, however, and this is where I have to turn serious, is that private and public sector organizations have some key differences. I pointed to some of them in the very first comment I ever posted at AOTUS’s blog under his initial post.  At that time in April 2010, I quoted Roy Ash, who served as an executive at Litton Industries and later as Nixon era Director of the Office of Management and Budget.

A side note: The chief’s blog is hard to navigate. The Archives listing for AOTUS Blog is not static but dynamic, limited to displaying a years’ worth of posts. I couldn’t find a way to go back to April 2010. I had to Google to get to the post on “No Small Change” to which I needed to link here. Some of us are historians, we don’t view the posts as “ephemeral” or “transitory” but as “permanently valuable records.” So we actually want or need to go back and read what the Big Dude said in the past!

I quoted in my response to Ferriero’s first blog post Roy Ash’s comment about the differences between the private and public sector.

“In business, if you have a fragmented organization, you may make a mistake here, and you may experiment there, but you try to offset it even more by successes elsewhere. . . .The President’s public is not so forgiving.” According to Ash, this can lead to conservatism in the sense that it “means caution. It means initiatives not only well-thought through, but initiatives that you’ve fairly well tested, and believe the public will regard as positive, rather than negative. . . You can’t get too far ahead, I guess.”

What will be interesting for me to observe is how NARA measures performance as it implements the Charter for Change. Barbara Toffler wrote  in Final Accounting that she distrusted performance management systems on the human resources side because many people learned how to game them. The same is true with indicators for agency performance.  Lets face it.  It’s tempting to play up some accomplishments while sweeping some challenges under the rug because addressing those challenges isn’t always rewarded in “Washington.”  Not necessarily the fault of those who do it; like everything else, candor requires the existence of trust zones.  Without them, you sometimes have to zig and zag.

Some of the challenges NARA faces are easier to address than others. Some are more discussable than others. The way to win coolness points in Washington and professionally is to focus on the most discussable areas (which for NARA include digitization and accessibility of already processed, publicly disclosed records). Some other elements of NARA’s mission may be undiscussable. I understand that, indeed, I sympathize with the constraints.

I don’t know what Ferriero will be able to do about some of the challenges NARA faces, especially the undiscussable ones in very risky areas. Moreover, NARA may not realize the extent to which it is not a full-service agency. To judge by archives news tweets, blog posts, and press releases, some critically important parts of Fedland may not be on NARA’s radar screen. That means that as an agency, the National Archives carries more risk in some areas than it seems to realize, unfortunately. Even if some houses of cards don’t collapse, knowledge gaps have the potential to dilute what I believe is a well-intended message of customer service.  (NARA peeps, try to be as candid with AOTUS as you can be; the Big Dude deserves that!  Don’t let him be blindsided any more than necessary.)

The more there is at stake, the more important it is not to carve out undiscussables intentionally or to limit candor.  Internally, this is easier to do than externally.  Gen. Anthony Zinni pointed to that in a lecture in 2003 at the U.S. Naval Academy on “The Obligation to Speak the Truth.” Speaking at an event sponsored by the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics, Zinni described why he felt he had to be candid in addressing some difficult situations. He said in one case, then National Security Advisor Sandy Berger asked him, “What gives you the right to question this?” Zinni laughed, “My response was the First Amendment. You know, they didn’t appreciate that but that’s what gave me the right.”

Easy to say, hard to do in “Washington.” Truth telling isn’t always rewarded here. Sometimes it leads to punishment. Yes, I have obvious reasons for thinking often about punishment.  Yet NARA’s core mission centers, as Acting Archivist Frank Burke once said, on the records “good and bad, of the administrations of the past.” I may be going out on a limb here but I think Ferriero has good intentions. Data gathering, finding out what isn’t even on the radar screen, encouraging discussion of the undiscussables, at least internally (some just are too risky to discuss externally), those are the truly challenging parts of implementing a Charter for Change.

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