"For 17 years, I've moved up through the ranks, bitching about the way things are done wrong," said Claudine Weiher. "Now I've got a chance to help do it right."

"You know," added the National Archives' assistant archivist for program support, "starting a new agency really gives you a chance to screw up in a way that everyone can see."

Next April 1, the General Services Administration will turn over the archives, the Federal Records Centers and seven presidential libraries to a new, independent National Archives and Records Administration, with an annual budget of about $100 million and 4,200 staff members.

Although the agency was created by law, the legislation included virtually no specific requirements on how the Archives should be organized. It has been left to officials such as Weiher to work out the details with officials from a parent agency that hasn't always supported the move.

Efforts to separate the Archives began to intensify three years ago, when then-GSA Administrator Gerald P. Carmen transferred several top Archives officials in what congressional critics saw as an effort to politicize the record-keeping agency. After Carmen and Archivist Robert W. Warner continued to battle over the future direction of the Archives, sympathetic congressmen began crafting legislation to split the agencies. The measure finally passed in the closing days of the 98th Congress.

At the point that it appeared the legislation would pass, GSA and Archives officials began discussing which resources would be transferred to the new agency. And although Carmen had left the GSA in February, GSA and Archives sources said his influence could still be felt in those closed-door meetings.

"No one there, including associate GSA administrator for administration Patricia Q. Schoeni, seemed to want to make this thing work," said one senior Archives official who asked not to be identified. "The discussions became quite destructive."

Schoeni, who chaired the meetings, said, "I thought they went well."

Eventually, GSA Comptroller Raymond A. Fontaine emerged as the peacemaker, joining Weiher in a back room and cutting the deal that was eventually approved by Warner and Acting GSA Administrator Ray Kline.

"Initially," Weiher said, "the negotiations were just too unwieldy." Fontaine said that "too many people with a grudge were involved. Somebody needed to take charge."

Now, Fontaine said, "we are at the point where we are hammering out the final details of what could be called a property settlement in this divorce. We want a clean break but a friendly one."

The arrangement involves turning over 115 job slots to the Archives in April, along with an estimated $5.55 million (depending on the salaries of the employes who are selected).

Thirty-eight slots will be personnel officers, 17 will be in finance, 15 in administrative support and eight will be auditors from the GSA inspector general's office. The allotments included one-tenth of a slot to augment the Archives' public affairs staff and three-tenths of a slot for an ethics officer.

The battle over which employes will be transferred is now under way. Some Archives officials are concerned that GSA managers will try to unload "dead wood" on them, and thus have tried to keep as many slots open as they could so they could do their own hiring. Now, under an agreement between Fontaine and Weiher, Archives officials will be able to hire their own people for at least 30 percent of the 115 positions.

"We're passing the word that we want people who can do the job to volunteer for the transfer," Fontaine said. "But I'm sure some managers are going to want to unload their dead wood." Fontaine emphasized that a transfer is not considered an "adverse personnel action" and cannot be appealed.

Finally, Archives officials are trying to decide what kind of administrative structure to adopt.

"There is no guidebook -- it was simply a matter of looking at GSA and seeing what services they were providing for us that we would now have to begin providing for ourselves," said George N. Scaboo, the deputy archivist, who, like Warner, will be leaving before the new agency is born.

"We've run the gamut from having to design new stationery and a new seal to setting up an office of general counsel to handle all legal matters," Weiher said.

Over the past few weeks, the Archives has unsuccessfully tried to coax the Office of Management and Budget to increase the number of Senior Executive Service slots it can have. Officials have also begun negotiations with the U.S. Postal Service to determine whether the Archives can pay for its postage, the way most large agencies do, instead of having to use stamps or a postage meter. But because the Postal Service bills agencies only on the basis of a semi-annual survey of outgoing mail over a two-week period, Weiher said, "we may not be mailing enough to qualify."

"Everyone thinks that everything in government has to remain the same, just so," said Weiher. "There really is a lot of flexibility. We can fine-tune a lot of things people never see to have an agency that works very well and avoids past mistakes and bureaucratic entanglements."

Weiher, for example, plans to overhaul the way the agency handles merit raises and hiring. She said that selecting and teaching a group of peers to evaluate their colleagues every year is "plain stupid."

Weiher, however, wants to retain at least one tie to the GSA -- she plans to contract with GSA's payroll office in Kansas City to handle the Archives' payroll. "We have never had a hitch with payroll, and I think the Kansas City folks are the best in government," Weiher said.