Why records authorities are a mess

While reflecting on the exciting and invigorating experience of presenting a recordkeeping masterclass last Friday, an epiphany occurred. You can make a good case that the current records authority process for classifying and disposing of records is highly problematic because it mashes up to six different needs for recordkeeping into a single unholy mess:

  1. to meet legal or regulatory requirements (eg retention of financial records)
  2. to ensure or disclaim accountability for actions, internally or externally (eg demonstrating that a hiring process was followed)
  3. to retain materials that support current and future organisational decision-making (eg case management, client, and systems files)
  4. to preserve materials that may have long-term value (eg artifacts of technical, scientific, cultural or historical significance)
  5. to identify, manage, and correctly dispose of sensitive materials (eg records containing personal information)
  6. to improve the effectiveness of discovery, and timeliness of retrieval for relevant records (particularly over the longer term)
    1. These purposes are overlapping and sometimes operate at cross-purposes. But I am confident that if you examined any reasonably-sized records authority held at the National Archives of Australia, you would most likely see functions, activities, and classes that have been written to specifically cater for situations where the needs of one of these factors was significantly more important than the others.

      Individually, the basis for each of these needs can be expressed relatively clearly and concisely:

      1. Legal and regulatory requirements for records are non-negotiable and therefore straightforward, regardless of one's personal opinions about them
      2. The perceived need for accountability records is generally negotiated over time and forms part of an organisation's culture. Where weak accountability exists, recordkeeping will be performed perfunctorily, if at all. If strong accountability exists, recordkeeping becomes an essential CYA activity for employees.
      3. Decision-based records are where recordkeepers would be most likely to have come into conflict with the business in the past. For business units, the need to access these records generally exists for as long as the person or object that the records describe exists, or still has the ability to impact on current situations (eg via a deceased relative). But archivists, who would just see reams of rarely- or never-accessed paper records, would almost certainly have pushed strongly for their disposal on a shorter timeframe.
      4. Valuable records rely on a subjective assessment on the need for their preservation. Therefore, they are likely to be treated highly inconsistently without strong governance. Yet some of these records will literally be both irreplaceable and indispensable for the work of future generations.
      5. Sensitive information is increasingly difficult to effectively manage, with the proliferation of channels to copy and distribute information. As a facet of information management that overlays all the others, and the only one that may its total destruction as a goal, it is the most likely to come into direct conflict with other goals of the organisation.

      And on top of all of this, classification is being used to purportedly speed up the retrieval of records in the short and longer term. Even if this were true, I have trouble believing that these days the increased per-unit costs of retrieving information outweighs the exponentially increasing costs of undertaking detailed information classification before storage.

      To put it another way, the focus is all wrong: When people undertake a huge amount of storage but only a modest retrieval from places that aren't already known, reducing storage costs is the most important factor. Only in a preservation repository such as a library, where searches for unknown materials are of far higher volume than new material going in, does it make sense to spend the extra effort cataloguing to facilitate discovery.

      (It does seem at least plausible that this heavy focus on cataloguing comes from library and archive management practices being transferred directly to other general organisations, despite their inappropriateness.)

      So what, I hear you ask? Well, just this: If each of these recordkeeping needs were considered separately, their treatment would become far more obvious:

      • Case files have little application outside of their specific purpose (and may need to be protected for sensitivity reasons), but are critical to an organisation until their lifecycle expires
      • The results of research and learning should be placed in a broadly accessible repository to encourage reuse and sharing
      • Accountability records place a premium on automatic capture with high resistance to tampering and corruption

      ... And so on and so forth. Each of these provides clear, transparent, and understandable reasons for the value in preserving or disposing of records - NONE of which are readily apparent from the perusal of a records authority.

      Is it any wonder that, in the absence of a clearly-expressed reason for a particular record to be kept, that people don't take the requirement seriously?

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