When a special group of Wake Island prisoners of war had trouble filling for benefits with the Veterans Administration, the problem landed on Marjorie Leandri's desk.
When the agency needed to hire an assistant for its secret government records depositry somewhere in the Midwest, it was Leandri who headed the search for just the right person. And when a veterans hospital in Tampa, Fla., wanted a new microfilm reader/printer, she was the one who approved the request.
It was all in a day's work for Leandri, whose job as VA's assistant director for records management puts her in charge of how her agency creates, maintains and disposes of its records. In the federal scheme of things she may be the quintessential paper pusher; without her and thousands of other so-called "faceless bureaucrats" -- a term she bridles at -- the government would not work.
"Is this job important? Sure it is," Leandri, 41, declares. "Someone has to be there in the agency to ensure record-keeping consistency, or you'd never know what you had -- or didn't have."
Political administrations come and go, but federal records pile up forever. Leandri's role in government is to help bring order out of what could be chaos. So even though she has no direct contact with them, the way Leandri does her job ultimately touches the lives of 30 million veterans and their families.
In its 51-year history, the VA has amassed some 1.4 million cubic feet of documents and microfilm while tending to the needs of the nation's ex-service members. Every time a veteran seeks education aid, pension benefits, medical treatment or compensation for a service-related injury, the claims become new records. All veterans get their own folders in government files, if only to mark their deaths.
"The government is very much a paper- or record-oriented society, but you can't just keep creating the records without having some control over them," says Leandri, who has watchdogged the collecting and caretaking of VA records for two of her 15 years of government service.
As a woman administrator and a GS 14 who earns about $40,000 a year, Leandri is not your typical civil servant. But like so many others, she is largely unknown and seldon gets a break from her desk. There is little drama to her job and yet she is kept do busy with its details that sometimes she has to set her wristwatch alarm to remind her of staff meetings and other appointments.
In consultation with the various service branches, Leandri helps decide what goes into veterans' folders, who gets charge of them, where they will be stored and under what circumstances they can be destroyed to make room for newer records. Her office also functions as the principal VA liaison with the General Services Administration and the Department of Defense on the loan or exchange of information.
There was a time, until the early 1960s, when what Leandri does carried the job title of paperwork manager. But the increasing use of microfilm, word processing equipment, automated files and other sophisticated information technology has greatly expanded the concept and requirements of her work.
Today, policing the records can be as involved as creating them, and her contributions have been recognized by the VA, which has selected her as ont of 60 agency employes nationwide to attend special leadership training sessions.
But she works in virtual anonymity -- not only to the public but also to many of her fellow workers in a downtown commerical building where the VA leases space.
Go around one corner in the ninth-floor corridor, and her name is unknown to the VA people who staff another office there.
Take a turn down another hallway and she is in her tiny windowless office, door open, cigarette in hand, elbow deep in a 7:30-4:30 workload that includes a four-inch stack of folders to review, staff memorandums and correspondence to check, decions on requests for word-processing machines and help in expediting record searches.
On this Monday she will get out of her office only three times, to get coffee, to go to lunch and to attend a brief staff meeting. When she finally heads for home in Fairfax County, she will take a briefcase full of reading material for an upcoming seminar.
Her morning includes:
A lengthy article on underground storage. Read and filed.
A large stack of mail (everything from equipment sales pitches to circulars from other agencies to records inquiries). Opened, and answered or sent to the appropriate staff person.
Notes on a microfilm project she is monitoring. Reviewed and filed.
A call from a vendor who wants to show off his latest word-processing equipment. Demonstration appointment made.
A dispute with the National Archives and Records Service over who will keep what copies of contract specifications. VA position letter approved.
"I like this job because it's varied -- every folder I open has something different in it," says Leandri, who grew up in Ohio, graduated from Ohio University and taught junior high mathematics for five years before beginning her government career by teaching Navy dependents in Japan. She came to Washington and the VA as a computer systems analyst 14 years ago.
"There's a lot of reading, almost too much," she adds. "I suppose I could have someone else on my staff do it, but what good does that do me?"
Throughout the office, personal touches leaven the federal uniformity. Along with the regulation gray file cabinet, the regulation "in" and "out" boxes, the regulation clock and the regulation shelf of government manuals and circulars, there is a radio, tuned to "easy listening" music. A Snoopy poster fights for attention on a bulletin board crammed with telephone charts and memoranda.
When she looks down at her desk, she can see a few cartoons, a photo of her motor home and her horoscope from a year ago. And when she looks up, there is a poster of the French Alps serving as her "window on the world." Three calendars help her note federal holidays, daily appointments and the vacations and annual leaves of her staff. A fourth is tacked up simply because she finds the Japanese photograph of gleaming green plants "pretty."
Leandri is married to a retired geovernment worker, and he is about the only one she will talk "shop" with outside the office. She concedes that her job does not make for stimulating cocktail party chatter, but she is proud of what she does and disturbed that bureaucrats seem to have a bad name.
"We're not time wasters," she protests. "In the offices I've worked in I've always felt we had hard workers, that the government gets a full eight-hour day out of people."
Leandri finds it challenging to come up with solutions for handling the agency's volume of records, kept in regional offices and 13 government records centers around the country. The agency, she says, has developed a good system for destroying its records -- 75 years after they arrive at one of the records centers -- but is still struggling with other governmental departments to devise the best way to exchange all that information.
"If several agencies need the same information from a category of people, only one of those agencies should be collecting it," says Leandri. By improving the exchange of information, "the individual only has to report it one time. The agency shares it with others and you don't have to ask a veteran to supply it."
Back in the office after lunch, cigarette and coffee in hand, she tackles the next round of work:
A request for a micrographic reader, which magnifies microfilm to reading size. Denied pending study of suitability.
A request for a VA facility in Austin, Tex. to lease a memory typewriter while current equipment is being used in a study of word processor applications. Approved.
A staff meeting on upcoming federal guidelines to reduce paper work. Staffers designated to attend briefing.
A letter to the acting assistant archivist. Reviewed, corrected and sent.
A letter outlining procedures for handling VA's closed criminal prosecution files. Bounced back for grammatical correction.
"There's no reason why federal government writers can't be gramatically correct," admonishes Leandri, her teaching background showing as she fixes a verb tense. It's also a reflection of her work on a VA committee that awards special recognition to well-writen letters or other communications.
At 4:30 p.m., rushing to beat the commuter traffic, she tucks a brown leather briefcase under her arm and heads for her car and a 40-minute drive home. Tomorrow she'll be back in her cramped office with its poster for a window, looking at a new set of problems and the records that go with them.