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NARA Reengineering: The Story Begins

NARA Reengineering: The Story Begins

The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri is the largest single component of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). The Center is grappling with an awesome task-to reengineer a paper-intensive, individually-oriented work process into one facilitated by teamwork and technology. This article is the beginning of a series that presents an in-depth study of their efforts.

Background about the Center

The Center maintains the records of former civilian Federal employees who retired within the past 150 years, as well as the personnel and medical records of nearly all former members of the United States military service who served during the 20th century. The Military Personnel Records section alone answers over 1.7 million requests for information annually.

The Need for Change

NARA's customer service goal is to provide ready access to essential information through timely customer service. In recent years, a number of events sparked an increase in the volume of the Center's work, making it difficult for the Center to reach this goal. These events include: Government downsizing; special projects such as Agent Orange claims and Gulf War Syndrome studies; and media-generated interest. At the same time, the Center downsized by about 15 percent, losing many of its most experienced and knowledgeable employees.

In addition to the added workload, the Center continues to carry out reference services much the same way it was done in the 1950s, that is, mostly without the technological efficiencies made possible by the information technology revolution. As a result, the Center's case backlog and processing times reached unacceptable levels. The Center's management recognized that only through radical and dramatic redesign of the case reference process could the Center meet its customer service goal.

Reengineering the Work Place

Business process reengineering began in the summer of 1997 with the establishment of the Project Respond Team–comprised of a project manager and five other full-time employees from the regular work force. This team developed plans for changes in the way that customer requests are processed, making greater use of information technology, and better, more efficient use of its human resources, including the use of teams.


The Center's vision for improving its work process includes:

  • streamlining mailroom sorting procedures;
  • assigning casework to teams instead of individuals;
  • analyzing inquiries within teams prior to record retrieval;
  • contacting customers when necessary, using phone, fax, or email (previously done by mail); and
  • simplifying correspondence procedures.

Information Technology

The Center's vision for improving its performance using enhanced technology includes:

  • maximizing the use of automation to manage caseload and reporting; and
  • connecting with other databases for paperless inquiry and response using a standardized format.

Human Resources

The Center's vision for making maximum use of its human resources includes:

  • creating continuous individual and team learning to develop and maintain greater levels of competency and increasingly marketable skills; and
  • shifting away from an individual performance focus to team performance management.

The implementation phase of the project began in June 1998 and will take 3-5 years to complete. Future articles in this newsletter will follow the Center's progress in developing its teams and improving its technology and work processes.

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