Archives strategy

If you boogie on over to the National Archives of Ireland website, you can download a copy of its Strategic Plan 2015–2017 [PDF], whereof the NAI says:

The National Archives’ Strategic Plan 2015 – 2017 outlines the challenges and priorities for us as an organisation. In it, we have identified the key areas we wish to develop, grounded in our vision, mission and values.

Well, yes, I suppose that is so. The thing is, though, that the Plan as published has only six pages, of which the first is a cover page and the last has the Vision, Mission, Values and Strategic Priorities set out in boxes. There are only four pages of meat.

So, although the Vision, Mission, Values and Strategic Priorities are present as advertised, there’s very little else. Using Rumelt’s three-part kernel structure as a model, we find that the NAI’s published strategic plan

  • lacks diagnosis
  • does have a guiding policy
  • has no action plans.

Perhaps the NAI has a lengthier document that, for diplomatic reasons, it is keeping out of public view.

Diagnosis

There is a sad little paragraph on the second page:

We are progressing these responsibilities in a time of restrained financial resources and significant reductions in staffing. We are operating with only 75% of our sanctioned numbers and this is a major obstacle to meeting our statutory requirements with regard to accepting annual accessions, dealing with backlogs and providing services to government bodies. There are technical and legislative changes being progressed which will directly impact on our role and function as they relate to the records of government. The ubiquity of digital information requires earlier intervention in the approach to current records management. Collectively these present huge challenges for us in meeting our obligations and in trying to deliver existing and develop enhanced services.

I’m sure all of that is true, but — apart from the “sanctioned numbers”, which may or may not be relevant to the required workload — there is nothing to enable the concerned citizen [the singular citizen mentioned on the third page] to grasp the scale of the problems.

I have been told [but have no evidence] that there are unopened boxes or archival material that the NAI hasn’t got the staff to deal with [but if that’s not so, please leave a Comment so that I can correct this]. I can see that the amount of material made available on tinterweb is very small. And I can guess that there is difficulty in coping with public sector record management, not just because of “the ubiquity of digital information” but because some departments may not write everything down lest they have to release it under Freedom of Information legislation. But in these and other areas of activity it would be nice to have some figures to go on.

For diagnosis, then, the plan does very little to inform the concerned citizen.

Action plans

There aren’t any. There are no targets, goals, aims, performance measures, milestones … and no concrete plans for reaching, meeting, achieving or otherwise carrying them out.

What we get instead is a list of “five key strategic priorities”. Priority 1 is

Develop a secure footing for the National Archives

but

Priority 1 is foundational in that it directly addresses physical and staffing resources and the overarching legislative framework in which we operate. Priority 1 is also directly related to external factors with which the National Archives has limited influence. The inability to deliver on priority 1 will impact upon our core functions.

I don’t like that. If there is something you can do little or nothing about, it shouldn’t be in your strategic plan: it should be in your letter to Santa or your when-I-win-the-lottery wishlist.

Nor do I like the use of the verb “develop”, which is in three of the five strategic priorities, with the equally weak “improve” in a fourth:

  • Develop a secure footing
  • Improve the visibility and accessibility of our services
  • Transition to digital
  • Develop our people
  • Develop collaboration.

They, and most of the other verbs used in the text, are all about making unquantified changes but not about reaching goals. What’s lacking is any sense that the organisation knows exactly what needs to be done to bring itself to some defined state [which might be that of coping fully with its legal obligations or handling some quantity of material or serving some number of clients or …]. I want some specific targets and some hard-nosed verbs about how they’re to be met.

I’m sure, for instance, that it’s nice to

…  provide all staff with opportunities for professional development …

but I’d be more interested in knowing what capabilities the organisation lacks and how it proposes to acquire them.

I’m generally on the side of the poor buggers in public service bodies who have to cope with the contradictory demands and short-term agendas of nitwitted politicians, and it seems to me that the NAI is probably suffering from both of those. But I would be more reassured by a more detailed strategy, with achievable targets and concrete plans for reaching them, than I am by the short document made available to the public. I hope that some longer, more explicit version has been developed for use by NAI management.

 

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