Part 3. Records Requiring Only Short-Term Retention
While conducting business, agencies create a large number of documents that require only short-term retention. Although these documents are useful to individuals in accomplishing their work, the documents are not needed as part of the long-term documentation of Agency activities.
There are four types of short-term documents that commonly occur in offices:
- Transitory documents
- Suspense, tracking, and control documents
- Facilitative documents
- Selected disposable supporting materials (working files)
Each type of document is explained below. Such documents must be managed judiciously or they will add greatly to the bulk of the files, and this often lessens the ability of others to understand what actually took place.
It is possible to argue that each of these types of documents does not meet the definition of a record in the Federal Records Act. However, the documents may qualify as records under the FOIA, and the more practical solution is to consider them as record material that needs to be retained for only a brief period of time. A brief period of time is usually defined as no more than 90 days. In many cases, 10 days is sufficient, and often short-term documents can be deleted/destroyed as soon as appropriate action has been taken.
Recordkeeping requirements for specific types of activities may require more complete documentation than other activities and may require that some of the documents described below be retained. Generally these activities are those of major legal, financial, and regulatory importance such as Agency rulemaking files, records of Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) committees, and Superfund site files. Consult the recordkeeping requirements for those activities for further information.
The following general guidance applies to managing all four types of short-term documents:
- Do not include them in the official file, unless specifically required to do so.
- If they are included in working files, they should be weeded on a periodic basis to avoid overloading the files.
Electronic documents (e.g., word processing, spreadsheets)
- Delete when the record copy has been produced, or when dissemination, revision, or updating is completed.
- Identify, using naming conventions that facilitate identification and deletion.
- If the message is a record, delete when the record copy has been produced. The record copy must include transmission data and attachments.
- If the message is not a record, delete when no longer in use.
Transitory documents are documents of short-term interest which have no documentary or evidential value. Transitory documents are disposable because they clearly do not pertain to the official activities of the Agency.
Three of the most common types of transitory files are:
- Routine requests for information or publications and copies of replies that require no administrative action, no policy decision, and no special compilation or research.
Example: An e-mail message requesting nominations for an Agency work group and the replies.
- Letters of transmittal that do not add information to the transmitted materials.
Example: Message transmitting a copy of a document to a requestor.
- Quasi-official notices that do not serve as the basis for official actions.
Example: Notices of holidays, bond compaigns, CFC campaign materials, etc.
If transitory documents are to be retained, they should be kept in a separate chronological file, and deleted or destroyed every 90 days, or sooner if no longer needed.
Suspense, Tracking, and Control Documents
Individuals create a wide variety of suspense, tracking, and control records to assist them in managing their programs and projects. These may be in the form of documents, but may also include databases, spreadsheets, or other lists, both manual and automated.
Three types of records are readily disposable:
- Suspense documents maintained solely as a reminder that an action is required on a given date or that a reply to action is expected and, if not received, should be traced on a given date.
Example: A note or reminder to take an action or a file of documents arranged by date when reply or action is expected.
- Logs, registers, and other records used to control or document the status of assignments, correspondence, reports, or other routine administrative records.
Example: A log of offices to which a document was sent for review.
- Advance copies of documents transmitted electronically that can be used immediately on an interim basis, but are replaced by official copies or notifications.
Example: Advance copy of a meeting agenda faxed to participants prior to the meeting.
Delete when action has been taken or when superseding documents have been received.
NARA defines "working papers" as documents such as "rough notes, calculations, or drafts assembled or created and used to prepare or analyze other documents."
There are two principal types of working papers.
- Working papers that receive no official action themselves, are not reviewed or approved by others, and are simply used to prepare documents for official action such as review, signature, publication, etc.
Examples: Budget calculations using different parameters, preliminary outlines for a report, lists of suggested points to be included in a memo.
- Working papers that relate to preliminary, interim, or ancillary activities that are not needed as part of the official record of the activity.
Examples: Drafts of routine memoranda and correspondence and proposed changes, informal comments received on a draft publication, documents used to brief staff and achieve concurrence on a proposed action.
As noted in the previous section on identifying Federal records, there are many functions and activities for which specific recordkeeping guidelines have been developed that explicitly identify the types of documentation necessary for complete files. Working papers, including drafts, background information, etc., may or may not be needed as part of the documentation for these activities.
For some files, working papers must be retained for specific periods of time. For example, see EPA 155 - Reports to Congress. Recordkeeping requirements, filing plans, and records schedules are the best source of information about whether working papers need to be retained for the type of activity being documented.
For each type of file or function, always check for existing function-specific or program-specific guidance concerning the documentation necessary for a complete file. Be especially careful in dealing with records pertaining to the legal and financial rights of the Government and those affected by Agency action.
In the absence of specific guidance on retaining working papers, they can be deleted or destroyed 90 days after the completion of the action, or sooner if no longer needed to support the activity.
Specific types of disposable working papers include:
Drafts, and the comments on them, require special attention. In some cases, drafts and comments on them must be included in the official files as part of the documentation of the activity. Examples include important mission-related policy, regulatory development, and some types of permits. Generally speaking, the recordkeeping requirements for a specific type of file (e.g., regulatory development files) should specify the conditions under which drafts and comments need to be included as part of the official files.
However, there are many instances when drafts can be safely destroyed. Examples include drafts not circulated for comment and drafts of most general publications, correspondence, internal memoranda, and other documents not related to critical functions. In such cases, drafts and comments on them can be destroyed once changes have been included in a revised version.
Unless otherwise specified, notes that do not qualify as personal papers can be destroyed/deleted once they are incorporated into a final product. Examples include notes used to prepare minutes of meetings, records of telephone conversations, decision memoranda, or other documents when the gist of the discussion, conversation, direction, or other activity is embodied in a document that states the official Agency decision, position, or outcome.
Unless otherwise specified, comments received on drafts, proposals, suggestions, and similar things can be deleted/destroyed once they have been incorporated or summarized for the official record. Examples include comments on drafts of internal memoranda, routine correspondence, and reports.
Note that there are very specific requirements to keep records of comments for specific activities including scientific publications, regulatory development, and policy development. Note also that comments received during internal and/or informal reviews are usually not as critical to the adequate and proper documentation of an activity.
However, comments received via a formal Agency comment process, comments received from the public/regulated community, or comments received during a formal review by outside experts should be carefully documented for the record, either by keeping the original comments themselves, or, if volume is extensive, keeping a summary of the comments and how they were used.
- Development materials
Documents such as preliminary calculations, approaches to issues, outlines, and other documents that the individual uses to prepare documents for official action can be destroyed/deleted once they are incorporated into a final product.
Examples include annotated copies of documents, preliminary calculations, results of preliminary investigations, lists of points to be considered or included, ideas or suggestions received from coworkers, and other documentation used in the development of documents for official action.