Article: A Guide for Municipal and State Agencies (Part 4 of 4)

A Guide For State Agenices Part 4

“As you make your transition to paperless processing, it can be helpful to look at your agency holistically. Closely examine your staff, your software systems, and your business processes, and find ways to improve efficiency by aligning them.”

In the earlier installments of this series, we discussed the steps and best practices associated with going paperless. We expanded on that concept in Part 3 of the series, where we discussed the importance to state and municipal agencies of not only managing information, but leveraging it with advanced ECM technologies such as intelligent capture, workflow, integration, BPM, and eForms.

In this installment, we’ll talk about records management for government agencies. Effective management is critical from a governance perspective, as it will ensure compliance and minimize risks associated with litigation. Most agencies are motivated to pursue solutions because of cost and risk avoidance. I would argue that the positive enhancements associated with records management—including improved efficiency, productivity, validity, standardization, protection, and decision making—should be equally persuasive.

Historically, however, the government sector has been challenged with managing records effectively. There has been no shortage of technology solutions to address these challenges. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “solutions” are dependent on some sort of human element, which, by definition, can be prone to error. If you are determining manually what is and what is not a record, you create the potential for mismanagement. Similarly, if your retention, disposition, and migration strategies are being executed manually, you create the potential for error. The prospect of effective governance can be daunting.

As a result, municipal and state agencies often fall into one of three categories in their efforts to address records management:

Strategy #1: Denial

Denial is, technically, not really a strategy. However, with respect to records management, it is a ubiquitous solution to a growing—and often incapacitating—problem. Agencies do not have the time or resources to address their records retention and destruction directives. So, instead of going through the sometimes difficult exercise of defining and managing their records from cradle to grave, their policy is to keep everything.

The denial strategy is not limited to organizations whose processes are paper-based. Electronic information accumulates at a dizzying rate. A 2011 IOUG Database Growth Survey reported that 78% of respondents acknowledged that their strategy for dealing with data growth was to buy more storage.

Without a solid strategy, you risk holding on to records well beyond their mandated disposition dates. You also risk deleting/destroying records prematurely, exposing your agency to significant financial penalties if you are audited or involved in a litigation case. Indefinite retention is not a valid records management strategy. Nor is denial.

Strategy #2: Manual attempts at lifecycle management

In these situations, agencies try to address retention and disposition directives. Unfortunately, even if they have implemented records management software, they are at a disadvantage if there is a human component to their enforcement efforts. They face the possibility of premature disposition, and of keeping records beyond their mandated lifecycles. Without automation, it is difficult to enforce policies consistently and without error. Agencies may even face difficulties defining what information is considered to be a record.

Strategy #3: Seamless records management

With seamless records management, there is no need to manually declare a record: every indexed document in the system is considered to be a record. Your agency defines retention rules for each document type, and the system does the rest, managing each record accordingly upon ingestion into the system.

With seamless records management, your IT team can add and edit retention policies, as well as schedule disposition. Audit trails offer protection in legal cases, demonstrating irrefutably who had access to what records, who altered them, and when. Agencies can also ensure continuity of operations in case of litigation with the ability to place records on legal hold. In these cases, documents/record series are held and prevented from deletion or purging—either manually or automatically. Files are still available for staff to access and use; but originals are kept unaltered until the legal hold has been released. This strategy removes the potential for human error from the equation.

Records Management Best Practices

As you introduce records management throughout your agency, it is helpful to keep these best practices in mind:

  • Lay the groundwork. Know your agency’s policies and retention requirements, and set rules around each type of record with respect to access, retention, and disposal. Determine which person(s) should serve as the custodian for each record type, and identify who should have the authority to place and remove legal holds from records.
  • Integrate records management with your ECM system. The ability to automate records management from document ingestion to disposal removes the risk of human error.
  • Manage both electronic and physical records and assets. Your ECM system can assist you in finding the location of physical records in your file room. This offers your agency greater protection against risk, and at the same time eliminates the need for fruitless searches for physical records.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. If you’re just starting out with records management, look to an area of your agency—HR, for example—that already has established retention requirements for their records. Configure and automate your retention schedules in these departments. Start simple, and grow your strategy to other areas throughout your agency.
  • Start small. It can be helpful to start your records management automation efforts in a single department, such as HR or Accounting, rather than across your entire agency. Define retention rules for each record, and then expand your efforts to other departments.

Migrating Inactive Records to Low-cost Storage

Agencies are required to retain certain records for a period beyond the active stages of their lifecycles. Electronic storage of these records can be expensive. One area of records management that is often overlooked is the movement of inactive records from expensive fast storage to more cost-effective, long-term storage options. Hierarchical storage management (HSM) software can help you automate the backup and migration of those records that are inactive, but must be retained for a designated period of time. This will help reduce operating costs. At the same time, by making your electronic storage repository work more efficiently, HSM will help to ensure that your active records are able to be accessed quickly.

The Big Picture

As you make your transition to paperless processing, it can be helpful to look at your agency holistically. Closely examine your staff, your software systems, and your business processes, and find ways to improve efficiency by aligning them. The reality is that the way we do work is changing. Constituents and other stakeholders have the expectation of efficient, immediate service. They expect transactions to be quick and informed. Staff has the expectation that information access will be available at their fingertips—whether they are servicing customers from a traditional work environment or on the go using tablets, smartphones, or other mobile devices.

Technology has made these expectations possible, but to achieve them you need to go beyond simple paperless processing. ECM software can address challenges associated with compliance, turnaround, information access, and outdated legacy systems that may be contributing to—rather than alleviating—increasing costs and process inefficiency. At the same time, it can make your agency more efficient and responsive. With a cloud-based option, deployment no longer requires a huge upfront capital expense. Don’t settle for the limited returns of simple paperless processing. Discover what you can accomplish with advanced ECM technologies like enterprise workflow, automation, integration, and records management.