Innovation is the Magic Word: An Interview with Pamela Wright, CINO of NARA

Innovation is one of the many buzz words floating around federal agencies. In a recent interview, Pamela Wright (CINO of NARA) shared the innovation goals of the National Archives and explained two projects that are looking to achieve those goals.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) of the National Archives, Pamela Wright. As her title might imply, she can be considered one of the movers and shakers of agency innovation, as she sits at the center of a transformation within NARA (National Archives and Records Administration).

The title of Chief Innovation Officer is a relatively new one in agencies. Wright is the first at NARA, donning the title this past December (2012), but it’s unlikely that she will be the last. The invention of this title shows that organizations are looking to give themselves a makeover and to overcome the stodgy reputation that federal agencies carry. However, NARA is one of the first agencies to develop a whole office dedicated to innovation.

NARA serves a variety of purposes, but the the primary mission is to preserve the most important records of the federal government, and provide access to the public to the unclassified records. It’s holdings include documents and materials that are of historical value, provide legal evidence, and records events in America’s near and distant past.

Wright states, “Over the past couple of years the agency has be undergoing a transformation that includes a reorganization of our offices to better align with our mission and goals, but isn’t limited to that. Rather it is an effort to change to the culture of the agency, to encourage more forward thinking, and to grapple with understanding how to execute our mission in a rapidly changing environment. So the goals of the transformation are really the goals of the innovation as well.”

NARA’s efforts to transform the culture to better align with their mission follows trends throughout the federal government, including efforts by the White House to increase citizen engagement and transparency. The goals specific to NARA, however, show a clear understanding of what an agency needs to be in order to succeed. During the interview, Wright highlighted six innovation goals at National Archives, which are highlighted below.

Goals of Innovation at the National Archives

1. Work as one NARA

At NARA, many agencies are disjointed, stove-piped in departments, offices, or business units, which halts progress and stifles innovation. At times, an agencies conduct repetitive research because of the lack of communication between offices. NARA seeks to remedy this by developing internal structures to support communication. The Office of Innovation aims to be at the center of this communication while simultaneously pushing for increased innovation, “transferring knowledge across the units, within the agency” and ensuring that “the project of innovation will be projects that cross organizational boundaries” says Wright.

2. Out in Front

Often agencies look to other agencies and organizations, especially abroad in order to observe best practices. Wright says that she “want[s] NARA to be out in front, to be a leader in the world of archives and records management. We want to work with other institutions to advance archival theory and create innovative practices that anticipate changes in information management and technology.” A way she is trying to achieve this is by encouraging innovation, which encourages forward thinking and, ultimately, improves NARA’s ability to reach the goals of their mission.

3. NARA as an Agency of Leaders

Leadership is often cited as one of the most important parts of a successful program or agency, and at NARA, the goal is to become not just a leading agency, but also an agency full of leaders. Wright mentioned that all of the successful pilots her office has launched could not have existed without supportive leadership. Further, she reminded us that leaders do not have to be managers; leaders can be any employee with a great idea. “The Office of Innovation has an opportunity to allow staff from anywhere across the agency to submit projects that they might want to do for innovation that would help them in their work where they are and we can support them with resources or staff to work on projects that they would initiate,” says Wright. The support can encourage the consideration of more “big ideas” that could help NARA become a trailblazer in the world of archives or in agency productivity.

This is just part one of the interview with Pamela Wright. Keep an eye out for the second blog which will share three more innovation goals, as well as two projects led by Wright at NARA that are bringing NARA closer to achieving its goals.

Does your agency have an innovation department?

What other agencies could benefit from having a CINO?

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