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FOIA Update: NARS Guides Agencies in Surviving Washington Paperscape

FOIA Update
Vol. II, No. 1

NARS Guides Agencies in Surviving Washington Paperscape

"FOIA has resulted in some general improvements in records controls and management . . . It has also encouraged elimination of unnecessary records from the files."

". . . FOIA requests have, in some cases, resulted in a better and more complete record . . . "

"Several . . . components reported qualitative improvement in records management efficiency and systems accuracy through improved indexes . . . "

These comments reflected in a FOIA cost-benefit analysis conducted by the Office of Information Law and Policy illustrate the benefits that a number of agencies find since the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act. Life after FOIA, agencies say, often results in placing priority on both current methods of record management and long range planning for record storage and disposition.

The General Services Administration's National Archives and Records Service (NARS), now headed by Archivist of the United States Robert M. Warner, offers various consulting services to those awash in the Washington paperscape:

• The Office of Records and Information Management, headed by John J. Landers, assists federal agencies by on-the-spot consulting on the development of forms and other material, by establishing systems for the efficient use of records, and by offering a series of training seminars. (See a schedule of training courses listed on page 8.)

• The Office of the Federal Register, headed by John E. Byrne, offers workshops in how to write federal regulations in simple English and also may, on occasion, go into an agency and assist in regulation writing.

• The Office of Federal Records Centers with George N. Scaboo, acting head, offers assistance in the selection of filing systems used by an agency and in "scheduling" records--that is, for retention by an agency for specified periods, for permanent preservation in the Archives, or for disposal.

Records that are retained by an agency may be kept in its offices or stored for the agency at a federal records center. Some records do end up belonging to the Archives after permanent transfer by an agency. Most records are ultimately discarded.

Records are stored at 13 regional centers and in two large national centers--St. Louis, Mo., and Suitland, Md.

Material at the regional centers belongs to the federal agencies generating them within that region. Military and civilian personnel records are maintained in two buildings at the St. Louis Center. The national records center at Suidand with 2.8 million cubic feet of storage space houses federal agency records from around the world. Here in 20 stack areas, including three that are vaults, is everything from passport material to the records of the meetings of the Joint Chiefs. Much material from here goes into the permanent collections of the Archives of the United States.

Material stored at the federal records centers is managed by a computerized system and can be retrieved by an agency when, for example, a FOIA request for old documents is received. National Center personnel say on routine requests from agencies they have a "one day turnaround" time. On FOIA matters telephone requests from agencies will be honored. Turnaround time on requests to St. Louis is about a week to 10 days.

Some documents at the national center at St. Louis are covered by agency guidelines and NARS staff can release these to requesters without further agency concurrence.

The functions of NARS, both in historic preservation and in guiding records management by agencies, are performed under laws contained in Title 44 of the U.S. Code.

Archivist Warner must agree to all schedules for records, although in some agency programs retention periods are covered by specific legislation.

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Updated August 13, 2014