ARMA Houston 2014: Local Government Sessions

diamond_logo_artwork_-_colorThis is the first in a series of recaps from the 2014 ARMA Houston Conference.

As government records managers, it’s easy to feel a little left out at records management conferences that are dominated by speakers and attendees from the private sector. That’s why I was so thrilled that this year’s annual ARMA Houston conference had not one but TWO sessions devoted specifically to (Texas!) local government records management!

The first session was called “Pick Your Battles Wisely” and was led by Michelle Manukonda, the records manager at the Sugar Land Police Department. The second was a panel discussion of local government records managers, moderated by yours truly. The panel participants were Ms. Manukonda, Mark Hoover from the City of Sugar Land, Ann Ebrahimi from Houston ISD, and Paul Scott, the RMO for Harris County. Here are some insights from these two sessions.

Relationships

Relationships are important! Records management is just as much (or perhaps even more) about working with people as it is about working with records. People don’t generally like to be told what to do, especially if they are accustomed to being in a position of authority. And the key decision makers from your government probably aren’t attending records management conferences. That’s why it’s important to create a rapport with those people, which may mean getting out of your comfort zone. But if you know the key decision maker in your organization well enough to know when s/he is in a bad mood, you know that that is not the time to talk about complicated records issues. And if you’ve established a relationship with that person, it becomes a lot easier in the future to ask them to, say, send out a memo requesting compliance with new records management policies. Ms. Manukonda also does “shift briefings,” where she talks to police officers about records before they go out into the field. Not only does this get them thinking about records on a regular basis, but it’s also a way to build that relationship with records creators and to train them on different records management issues.

Inventory

When it comes to doing an inventory, use the KISS method: Keep it Simple, Sweetheart. (Or “Stupid,” for the more cynical among us). A simple Word document listing what records are on what shelf will work just fine. Complicated Excel spreadsheets with multiple pages won’t make you any friends! As part of his inventory process, Mr. Hoover likes to ask people what they would need in a disaster. That makes people think of records in a more concrete way. He advises that you should frame the inventory as something that they need, rather than something you need to develop a retention schedule.

Microfilm microfilm-reel

Although we do recommend microfilm as a long term preservation medium, it appears that this is one of those recommendations that sounds good in theory but is more difficult to implement in practice. Some local governments report that the retrieval of microfilm is becoming more challenging because there aren’t as many microfilm readers or technicians for the readers anymore. It also appears that finding a microfilm company that offers a combination microfilm reader/scanner is difficult, especially finding one that interfaces with new computer software. There is also the fact that it is a time consuming process. Houston ISD has addressed this by making microfilms of records at the same time that those records are scanned into an electronic system.

Other Nuggets

  • Mr. Scott remarked that most emails are not records. Quite a controversial stance! But once he explained what he meant, it made sense. He explained that the emails that are obviously records usually enter a workflow immediately. Otherwise, emails are usually categorized as correspondence. The remaining emails are usually not considered emails. (Notice that I used the modifier “usually” there three times – yes, it’s grammatically redundant, but I don’t want to make blanket statements about email records!)
  • Mr. Scott referenced the “Doctrine of Completed Staff Work” as a tool for records managers. The principle is that you shouldn’t bring a problem to your supervisor unless you already have a solution. Preferably, that solution will involve as little work as possible for your supervisor – for example, a policy that they can simply sign before getting on with their day.
  • The concept of military reserves was also brought up as applying to records management. If a military wants to be successful, they have reserves to reinforce success, rather than using them only to deal with failure. Similarly, records management should hopefully be something that supports the success of your organization, rather than something that is brought in to deal with a failure of some kind.
  • Mr. Hoover has looked into social media archiving, and has discovered that there are companies that can archive social media content and keep it for you. (We covered this briefly in our “Managing Social Media Records” webinar.) However, it’s still up to you to apply retention periods to that content. Some companies are looking into auto-classification for social media content but right now, it doesn’t seem to be available.

Being able to talk to other local government RMOs at this conference was an exciting and informative experience. Now I will turn the floor over to you, our readers – if you had been at this conference with us, what advice would you give about local government records management?

One thought on “ARMA Houston 2014: Local Government Sessions

  1. This is a great article. I like radical new approaches to email management. I have lobbied for years that we stop referring to email as “correspondence” altogether. Correspondence implies paper – the written letter. Most people under the age of about 25-30 don’t have the frame of reference to paper correspondence. We simply don’t, or very rarely, communicate that way anymore. Email has a host of legal, regulatory, and management issues that are either not found in paper correspondence, or are exacerbated by the volume and general use of email. For example: how many personal messages are typically found in written business correspondence? Most paper correspondence is a complete set of coherent thoughts, one half of the conversation of course, but a complete half. Most is email isn’t even that, it’s a set of bits of one half of the conversation. We handle and maintain email differently than paper correspondence because “most” email is actually akin to phone conversation than a written letter. I think we in the records management community would be better served to refer to email as “email messages” or “electronic communication” rather than “correspondence.” I’m not saying treat it differently, it can still have the same retention period, I see it more as frame of reference. Re-branding as it were.

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