| Emergency plan for dealing with accumulations of records and archives in government services: a RAMP study |
|3. Phases in the implementation of the emergency plan|
This is the most important practical and intellectual operation to be carried out during the emergency plan. Its purpose is to separate the documents from the objects accumulated in the same premises, to identify sets of documents according to their origins and finally to separate, if only in a rough and ready manner, the documents for permanent conservation from those prepared for destruction.
3.2.1 Working groups
Before starting the document appraisal and classification operation, the working groups must be set up. A number of questions arise. Should a central group be formed that will visit a whole ministry, including the establishments under its supervision, or should small groups be formed in each structure? Should the members of the group work only part time for the plan, or should they be seconded full time? What is the profile of the members of these groups? How many members will each group have? What working hours should be adopted? Is there a special form of remuneration? etc.
In the case of Tunisia, we opted in most cases for a small group in each of a ministry's different structures and in each government establishment. We did so for two reasons:
- the employees of a given structure are always in a better position than others to identify the documents generated by their own structure, and are able to describe them;
- because they are directly involved in the execution of the emergency plan, each government structure or establishment becomes aware of the consequences of the anarchic situation of the documents and of the need for an effective records management policy. They should not be led to suppose that this matter concerns another authority (in this case the National Archives) but should be made aware that they are directly concerned.
This choice implies the existence, in these different groups, of employees who have received prior training. In fact, in the Tunisian example, those persons who had taken a two-week training course before the start of the appraisal and classification operation were not properly shared out among the various government structures and establishments so as to cover all the groups that had been constituted. Different solutions were adopted to remedy this shortcoming:
- the groups in question were briefed by the adviser instructed by the Prime Minister to provide technical assistance and monitor the emergency plan in a given ministry;
- the employees who had received training instructed the other members of the working groups;
- training sessions or information days were organized for employees in the same ministry.
The full time assignment of members of the working group to the emergency plan is more effective than their part-time assignment, in that the employee can thus concentrate more on this operation instead of being torn between the two tasks that he/she must carry out alternately in the course of the same day or throughout the week. Moreover, the example of a ministry where the assignment was on a part-time basis proved the inefficiency of this method.
To ensure the stability of the working groups, the assignment of the employees must be decided by the head of the government service, the reason being that certain offices tend to avoid the assignment of their own staff to the emergency plan, owing to a shortage of staff to perform their everyday tasks. The assignment decision must be taken by a senior official of a ministry or the head of a government establishment.
The staff in charge of the emergency plan should have two types of profile:
- labourers or unskilled workers who will carry out the cleaning and handling of goods;
- employees who will carry out the appraisal, classification and shelving of the documents.
The latter must have a level of education at least equivalent to the baccalaureate in order to be able to describe the contents of the documents and draw up the lists.
The number of persons to be assigned to the plan depends on two parameters, i.e. the volume of the documents to be processed and the time allowed for the emergency plan. According to the evaluations carried out in the case that concerns the present study, a month's work to clean up a storage area that contained 75 linear metres of documents was needed on average for a group consisting of three employees assigned to the appraisal-classification operation and two unskilled workers. The effectiveness of the group was greater when it was headed by a supervisor who had the equivalent of a Master's degree in higher education (baccalaureate and four years of university education). In any case, each group must be headed by a member who has received appropriate training, even if the other members of the group have the same level of education.
There is no doubt that the staff assigned to the emergency plan will often have to work in very difficult conditions. For greater motivation and to counteract the frustration that this difficult task may cause, it is worthwhile to introduce a special allowance for these agents during the plan. It is not only the amount of this allowance that will have an effect on the persons concerned: the gesture in itself will be perceived as adding prestige to the reorganization and conservation task, which is often wrongly regarded as degrading. As with all budgetary expenditure, the special allowance will be subject to regulations and the necessary budgetary operations.
Although a specific case, the method adopted in the Tunisian operation was edifying. The special allowance was calculated on the basis of overtime hours. But as the regulations set a quota of only 150 overtime hours per person per year, a new presidential degree was issued so as to waive this rule and enable the employees concerned to work up to 550 hours of overtime per year during the emergency plan. The effect of this exceptional measure was to come to an end on the official date for the completion of the emergency plan. This new regulation was the subject of two circular letters from the Prime Minister defining the implementation and urging the various government services to take the necessary steps to make suitable provision in their draft budgets for the following year.
During the implementation of the plan, changes in the constitution of the working groups may occur, e.g. members may leave and others may arrive; but such mobility must not result in a change of all the group's members, since this would necessitate a resumption of training and learning and would adversely affect the work of document appraisal and classification.
3.2.2 Appraisal and classification techniques
After cleaning and refurbishment of the premises, the appraisal-classification operation of all the documents collected must be carried out. It should be stated beforehand that the aim is not to conduct a definitive appraisal or classification, for the following reasons:
- this operation is carried out by unqualified persons who are unable to perform it according to the techniques in use in this sphere and who, often, are not sufficiently familiar with the structures of the body in question;
- there are no standards (appraisal chart or conservation timetable) which would make a systematic appraisal possible, since such tools take a long time to become established, in addition to the need for sound experience of archives administration;
- a methodical classification would also require research and documentation on the specific tasks and forms of organization of the document-producing services.
Accordingly, this appraisal and classification operation aims at achieving the following:
- separate the files and archival documents, on the one hand, from library and documentation service documents, on the other;
- weed out the documents that are in an advanced state of deterioration for disposal;
- gather together the documents on the basis of the structures of a single ministry or government establishment;
- identify briefly the contents of the documents in the description units which are to contain many documents (files, boxes or even a group of boxes), at the same time proposing:
· destruction of documents which do not visibly contain information rendering them eligible for permanent conservation;
· permanent conservation for the remaining documents;
- store the documents properly in conditions conducive to the conservation.
We shall endeavour to develop the various points mentioned above. In many cases, the depots that housed the documents also served to store various kinds of objects such as discarded furniture, spare furniture, technical equipment, etc. The reorganization of those premises therefore consisted in ridding them of all items superfluous to the documents themselves.
The first appraisal, then, consists in separating archives from other documents. In fact, the government services which disencumber themselves of their documents do not distinguish between files and archive papers proper and other documentary material such as books, periodicals and reviews. Sometimes printed matter, unused envelopes and even other stationery are found mixed up with the documents.
Documentary materials other than archives may, in some cases, be channelled into the appropriate library or documentation units, whether in the body concerned or elsewhere. If they are of little interest, they will be disposed of through recycling or sold to second-hand booksellers, as appropriate. 'The gazette' in which governmental decrees are published may be given special treatment. If copies of this publication are numerous, annual collections can be constituted to be used by different branches of the same body. Special attention will be paid to what is customarily called 'grey literature' or 'administrative documentation', i.e. studies, surveys and other works produced by the civil service and distributed on a fairly limited scale.
The first appraisal operation therefore consists in reconstituting sets of archival records. However, in view of the often anarchic way in which the documents have been deposited, it is not easy to lay hands immediately on the documents of a single department or structure. Hence the appraisal must be carried out according to the structures of a single ministry or government body, in accordance with the principle of source. Thus, by gathering together documents on this principle in all the premises where they have been stored, we shall be able to reconstitute archive groups.
This initial classification must precede any operation of document description or summary of records, since it is more convenient to produce a document description after an appraisal has been carried out on the basis of origin. The standardized lists prepared for the description of the documents according to origin are of two kinds: lists of documents for permanent conservation and lists of documents for disposal. The description operation therefore works in conjunction with an appraisal to classify the two categories of documents.
Appraisal and description of documents are the most sensitive archival operations. Since they will be carried out by relatively unqualified persons, any disposal of documents not authorized by the National Archives must be prohibited, so as to prevent the illicit destruction of certain documents. The description of the documents, whether they are proposed for permanent conservation or for disposal, is carried out at the level of each set of premises and separately for each service producing them. It is made up of the following components:
- a serial number for each item or description unit. The item is usually a box of standard size: (35 cm x 25 cm x 10 cm) or a bundle;
- the subject of the documents included in the description unit or item. The description must be brief: it is not necessary to go into details of files or papers;
- extreme dates: the earliest and the latest year of issue of the documents figuring in the description;
- a column is set aside for comments where particulars concerning the documents may be given, such as the type of medium, form, state of preservation, etc.
The quality of the description must be checked by senior specialists. This verification must take place without fail at the beginning of the operation, and every time that new staff are assigned to the emergency plan.
The document description makes it possible to identify the documents and also to reconstitute the holdings of the different services. Identification will probably help to highlight certain documents whose primary value is skill high and which could, on occasion, serve the purposes of the government department. However, the main purpose of identification will be to prepare for the transfer of the documents to the National Archives.
Since there is a heavy backlog, it is preferable by means of this emergency plan to carry out a primary appraisal and to give even a brief description, so that documents deposited subsequently obey minimum rules of organization and are not transferred in disorder. Otherwise, the staff of the National Archives will spend a considerable amount of time sorting them, both physically and logically. Most countries are not so fortunate as to have enough archive staff to cope with such an accumulation.
The appraisal and description of the documents therefore results in the identification of two groups of documents: those proposed for permanent conservation and those proposed for destruction.
3.2.3 Destruction of documents
Tunisian legislation is unequivocal on the disposal of public archives, which can be carried out only on the advice and under the technical supervision of the National Archives. Government services therefore cannot dispose of documents without having completed the necessary formalities. The lists of documents proposed for destruction are sent for endorsement to the National Archives.
Under the emergency plan, it was initially suggested that there should be no destruction until the plan had been completed. However, it later transpired that by following this rule many government services had become encumbered in the very process of the appraisal and shelving of documents which had hitherto been left in disorder. To relieve the congestion of the premises and to allow the plan to continue, it was decided to dispose of the most severely damaged documents, i.e. documents which had become irretrievable owing to their advanced state of deterioration (very often due to flooding, damp premises or long exposure to the sun). Other categories of documents can be disposed of without delay, especially documents on financial management whose drafting dates back more than ten years, to which no requirements any longer apply, and which are not consolidated documents. Certain documents on personnel management can also be destroyed. The disposal of documentation and library material was mentioned in paragraph 3.2.2 above.
Disposal thus authorized and carried out is a reliable means of relieving government services and enabling them to manage their premises more effectively. They can thus keep to the work schedules.