Step 4. Developing Recordkeeping Requirements
At one time, records management was thought of as simply a way to cut down on the amount of paper in the office. Records schedules that allowed for the rapid destruction of the records, and microfilming (or lately imaging) systems that "got the paper off the floor" and freed up space were two of the cornerstones of an effective records management program.
Adequate and Proper Documentation
There has always been a second component to records management - the need to provide for the "adequate and proper documentation" of activities as the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) calls it. Agencies and programs ensure that they have "adequate and proper documentation" by developing recordkeeping requirements. In other words, "adequate and proper documentation" is our goal and recordkeeping requirements are the means to implement the goal. Recordkeeping requirements allow Agency programs to create and maintain documentation that is complete, consistent across offices, concise (only necessary documentation is included), compliant (meet all statutory, Federal and Agency requirements), and cost effective.
Despite all of the benefits that accrue from having recordkeeping requirements, few Federal agencies have developed a comprehensive recordkeeping requirements program. There are at least three reasons for this.
- Although the CFR mandates that agencies develop recordkeeping requirements, neither the regulations nor the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) provide much in the way of guidance on how to do it.
- Although recordkeeping requirements are not a new idea, the stress on them is relatively recent.
- Finally, developing comprehensive recordkeeping requirements actually involves creating multiple layers of requirements, and it is often hard to get all parties to focus on the issue.
Three Components of Recordkeeping Requirements
The three basic components (layers) of a comprehensive recordkeeping requirements package are:
- Agency requirements
- Program requirements
- Series requirements
It's the Law...Regulations Governing Recordkeeping Requirements
Agencies shall identify, develop, issue, and periodically review their recordkeeping requirements for all their activities at all levels and locations and for all media. Recordkeeping requirements shall:
- Identify and prescribe specific categories of documentary materials to be systematically created or received and maintained by agency personnel in the course of their official duties;
- Prescribe the use of materials and recordkeeping techniques that ensure the preservation of records as long as they are needed by the Government;
- Prescribe the manner in which these materials shall be maintained wherever held; and
- Distinguish records from nonrecord materials and, with the approval of the Archivist of the United States, prescribe action for the final disposition of agency records when they are no longer needed for current business.
36 CFR 1220.32 Federal Records - General, Subpart C - Standards for Agency Recordkeeping Requirements
Let's look at each of the three components of a comprehensive recordkeeping requirements package.
The Agency is responsible for developing the overall framework for the recordkeeping requirements program. For example, the Agency (principally the Office of Information Collection (OIC) at EPA) issues policies and procedures covering:
- The definition of records and nonrecord
- Program responsibilities
- The management of records in all media
- Records creation and disposition
- Filing requirements
As NARA pointed out in its 1992 evaluation of EPA's records management program, the Agency's recordkeeping requirements at this level are fairly complete, and OIC is working to strengthen those that are out of date.
Beneath this umbrella of Agency requirements exists a level of program-specific requirements. These requirements must address the types of records that must be kept to adequately and properly document an organization's activities.
Some requirements derive from legislation, as in cases where programs are required to maintain certain types of records such as dockets or the Superfund administrative record. Frequently, these are among our best documented activities because the Agency is very responsive to statutory requirements.
Other program requirements are less well identified, often because the "program" crosses organizational boundaries. At EPA, there is an obvious need to develop an overall set of recordkeeping requirements for contract management, clearly laying out the recordkeeping responsibilities of the contracting officer, project officer, and work assignment manager/delivery order project officer. Such recordkeeping requirements would also address records maintained in the Integrated Contract Management System, and the processing centers in Cincinnati and Research Triangle Park, as well as distinguishing between documentation of the costs incurred and the evaluation of the work performed.
At the program level, recordkeeping requirements must identify four types of information at a high level:
- The basic records series that must be created and maintained by all organizations to document their activities.
- The programs or offices responsible for the record copies of those series.
- The relationships among the series, including the relationships of hard copy to electronic files, system input documents, legal and audit requirements, and similar questions.
- An overall retention strategy to ensure the documentation is retained long enough to meet programmatic, administrative, fiscal, legal, and historical needs.
To give a concrete example, following is a list of records series needed for a "documentation strategy" for Superfund.
Superfund Documentation Strategy
The following are among the principal types of records necessary for documenting the Superfund program:
- Administrative records
- Cost recovery records
- Site file records
- Contract, grant and interagency agreement records
- Records related to CERCLIS, and other electronic systems (data and documentation)
- Enforcement records
- Litigation support records
- Laboratory analytical records
- Research records in the Office of Research and Development
- Policies, directives, procedures, and guidance documents
- Publications developed in Superfund
- Program planning documents
- Oversight documents
Records falling under each of these types may be found in all Agency offices at Headquarters, in the Regions, and at EPA Laboratories. They will include paper, microform, electronic information systems, maps, geographic information systems, computer models, as well as paper files.
Series Specific Requirements
The third level of recordkeeping requirements identifies what records are to be included in the specific records series and how they are to be arranged. Series level recordkeeping requirements incorporate a number of pieces of information that were discussed in earlier steps such as:
- Location and custodians of the series
- Relationship to other records
- Retention and disposition
- File identification and arrangement
In addition, the series level recordkeeping requirements should address the following questions:
- What documents need to be included in the file?
- What documents can be safely discarded?
- How should the documents be arranged?
- Is it necessary to retain drafts?
- When and how should telephone calls, meetings, and electronic mail exchanges be documented for the record?
- For project case files, should there be a single series, or should the documentation be divided between an "official case file" of primary documentation and a "case working file" containing supporting information?
Case Working Files
As much as 70% of the program records in an office normally consist of "case files." Case files contain important documentation of program activities but often become voluminous. Frequently the problem is that although all the records in a case file relate to the same activity (issuing a permit for example) some of the documents (papers supporting the issuance of the permit or inspection reports) may not need the same retention as the permit itself.
One solution is to divide the documentation between the official case file and the case working file. The official case file consists of the essential documents concerning the action, normally those that are referenced most frequently, are needed for legal and administrative purposes, and which will have the longest retention. Other documents that support the official case file are maintained separately in a case working file. These records will normally have a shorter retention and may be stored off site because they are not used as frequently. It is important to note that case working files are records and cannot be destroyed without an approved records schedule.
Answers to these questions are best developed in work groups made up of program staff, administrative staff, program managers, and legal staff so that all documentation requirements are adequately addressed. In programs where active records are held by the program staff, it is necessary for all to agree to the recordkeeping requirements so that they are consistently implemented by everyone.