@FOIManUK on Records management – Just Do It!

RM3At the 2012 Information and Records Management Society (IRMS) Conference, Northumbria University academic Julie McLeod asked the audience a simple question. She asked how many of those present worked for an organisation that had articulated a vision for electronic records management. Less than 10% of the audience raised their hands.

On first sight, that’s a pretty startling statistic. The IRMS is the main industry body for records managers. If anyone could be expected to have articulated a vision for electronic records management, it was the people in that room.

But the truth is, I’m not that surprised by Julie’s experience.

Firstly, I think it’s partly to do with what Julie asked. If she’d asked whether those present had a records management policy, I suspect a much bigger proportion would have put their hands up. And many records management policies probably include a statement saying how the organisation aspires to manage electronic records. That’s a vision – but those present probably didn’t think of it as such.

But what about those who just don’t have any statement? I suspect a lot of people in that room didn’t have anything – no policy, no strategy, no vision. And I think I know why.

The people responsible for records management in a lot of organisations are nervous of getting it wrong. And all the talk of visions, strategies and programmes isn’t helping. All the competing theories and evolving attitudes are hard to keep up with. 10 years ago, public bodies were being encouraged to adopt electronic document and records management systems. Now it’s rare to hear a success story about such systems, and hardly anyone thinks they’re a good idea. How do you come up with a vision for the future operation of your organisation when the future keeps changing?

What’s more, in most organisations, the person responsible for records management may be relatively junior. Often they will be someone who was drafted into the role; it might only be part of their job.

But it is important that records management is addressed. Any business needs to manage its information. Back at the start of my career I worked for a pharmaceutical company. Our records management unit ensured that they were able to prove that they discovered their marketed drugs first – some of those records were worth billions to the business.

And it is necessary for compliance with legislation. For example, if you look at many civil monetary penalties issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office, you will find that poor records management played a part.

And public authorities of course are subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Section 46 of the Act requires the Lord Chancellor to issue a Code of Practice on the management of records. The Code of Practice was written by the National Archives and sets out the features that they expect to see in public authorities’ records management.Whilst not a statutory requirement, the Information Commissioner is unlikely to look kindly on a public authority that fails to meet its FOI obligations due to records management failings. Indeed he has been known to issue a practice recommendation to an authority insisting that they improve their records management.

So organisations – especially public sector ones – need to do something about records management. But what?

We can start by using the Code of Practice as a guide. What do the experts at the National Archives think should be in place?

And we can stop letting “the best be the enemy of the good”. Julie McLeod’s straw poll, as well as the more detailed research she was reporting on at the conference showed that many organisations had done very little. What actually needs to happen is something. We should improve records management one step at a time. We must be pragmatic.

That’s what I’m going to attempt to do in my new course for Act Now Training on Records Management and the Section 46 Code of Practice. I’ll explain the different requirements of the Code and practical things you can do to meet them. That’s obvious. But I’ll also tell you not to panic. Don’t try to do it all at once. What are the key things you can do that will improve your records management almost overnight? You will leave with an action plan for your organisation – so you’ll instantly be ahead of 90% of those conference delegates I mentioned. The key words are “Just Do It.”

Paul Gibbons (aka FOIMan) blogs at http://www.foiman.com. He also delivers our Practical FOI course.

This entry was posted in Freedom of Information, Records Management and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to @FOIManUK on Records management – Just Do It!

  1. I would say that in my work I would be one of the 10%. However, that does not mean that I have cracked it just that a vision has been articulated. The problem is too large to solve in one go because it is *not* a records management issue. Records management is an outgrowth of the corporate management system and it is a corporate management issue to resolve.

    If the organisation does not know what it is doing about information or data let alone records, then an RM strategy or vision does not matter. A RM policy will become another policy on the shelf. More to the point RM, in these situations, is only an outgrowth of DM or IM, which will shape the future of any RM policy. The public sector is notoriously ineffective in harvesting the potential of DM or IM but not for the want of trying. They know that they need it intuitively, but they lack of the vision because the structures and the cultures are not designed to manage IM or DM as assets. In large part they lack the vision to see that their work is part of the knowledge management, which explains how an organisation learns and what it needs to be effective.

    If organisations saw their information, let alone their records, as assets, we would get more interest and involvement. http://thoughtmanagement.org/2012/04/21/here-is-the-next-revolution-in-records-and-records-management/ Yet, that alone would not be sufficient. The issue is more cultural in that local government in particular see themselves as service delivery and thus exempt from knowledge work. The efficiency from improved knowledge management are still to be obtained. However, technology is not the answer. There has to be a sea change on the approach to knowledge management, which then cascades to IM and DM, which then have the knock on effect on RM. the change is cultural and it is not policies or in technologies as those are byproducts.

    If we pursue an RM as the way to achieve this, we attempt to wag the dog with the tail. However, if we only have RM it is a start, however, I would not start from RM if I was trying to get to the destination.

  2. Paul Newton says:

    Tellingly, the picture associated with Records Management is of a pile of paper files. In reality, it’s increasingly about electronic data. In Health & Social Care we have painfully long retention schedules and a colleague recently raised an issue as follows – I’d welcome any views from RM colleagues:

    Medical records need to be retained for at least 25 years for maternity and paediatric cases. People do not understand the context sensitive nature of clinical data. In the event of legal/litigation action the clinical information presented to the clinical care teams at the time in chronological order should be reproducible. This is fine with paper – you just put it in store! With exit from a system some of my colleagues just think the data can be exported to a data warehouse. I have explained this means that a lot of context, audit trails and other data is lost such that the record will not be able to be reconstructed ‘as was’ at the time of any incident/decision. In which case any litigation could not be defended. The only way to manage this is to freeze the system (access only) but keep it running until the record retention time limit expires.

  3. Susan Healy says:

    Two other things worth looking at as well as the s46 code itself
    – the supporting guidance covering some of the elements of the code (on the TNA website)
    – the assessment tool developed by Steve Bailey (on the JISC website)

  4. Paul Newton says:

    I hasten to add that I see a healthcare ‘museum of software and hardware’ to replicate any point in a systems use as being neither affordable nor practical – so this is a real issue – the Elephants Graveyard scenario!

    • Paul
      Long-term preservation of digital records is a problem in many sectors, but you’re right to highlight the unique difficulties involved with health and social care records. On my course we’ll – briefly – look at the issues around digital preservation. There are companies out there that do a lot of work around digital preservation, and I would also point you to the National Archives’ guidance (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/information-management/our-services/digital-continuity.htm) which might help in planning for long-term preservation. The best approach is to take a pragmatic one that works for your organisation – and your example of making records access-only is an example of that – as long, of course, as you have audit trails in place to monitor any access (including by administrators).

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