The Records Management Challenges of Amalgamation

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1 FEATURE The Records Management Challenges of Amalgamation BY CHRIS HOUNSOME PRESIDENT AND CEO, CONDAR CONSULTING INC. OTTAWA, ONTARIO When municipalities amalgamate, the ensuing frenzy of politicians, committees and advisors can frighten off the bravest of administrators. In all the hubbub, however, one function cannot be forgotten: records management. Files. Boxes. Paper. Boring those are the usual reactions whenever the subject is brought up. But while records management may seem boring to many, it is hard to over estimate the importance of records management (RM) to a municipality. The records which may be paper, electronic files or microfilm are the corporate memory of the municipality, the record of what was done and why it was done. There are accepted standards for managing records, but there is no single best way. Each municipal records manager has chosen, over the years, a particular way of managing their municipality s records, a way that will likely differ from their counterparts in neighbouring towns and cities. Aside from these differing records management models, there will also be qualitative differences among the constituent municipalities records management programs. These differences, and the generally-low profile of records management programs, can lead to significant problems when municipalities amalgamate. This article is intended to help transition boards and records managers to be as prepared as possible prior to any amalgamation. Step One: Get Noticed Records managers must, almost from the day of the amalgamation announcement, ensure that their issues are on the table and considered seriously by management. Their counterparts and future colleagues in other towns must be encouraged to undertake the same public relations exercise in their municipalities. They should emphasize the importance of the records management function; the consequences of ignoring or underfunding the RM function; the public relations disaster that could 2 municipal MONITOR June/July 2001

2 occur if records are lost or unavailable for any period of time; and the benefits of good RM, not only to customer service but to the bottom line. If there are information management programs at local colleges or universities, ask program officials to write to the transition board members, emphasizing the essential nature of the RM function. Ask local RM consultants to do the same thing. True, the consultants would be writing with ulterior motives, but the key point here is to ensure that transition board members (and City Clerks and Mayors) are aware of RM s importance and the negative consequences of a laissez faire attitude towards it. Within the municipality, talk to the Legal Department and get its support. Lawyers understand the importance of good records management. If a key record is missing or has been destroyed illegally, the municipality is vulnerable. A small investment of resources up front could save hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal liability later. The planning for a new city will involve numerous committees; Records Management must be the primary focus of one of those committees. The RM committee should be made up of RM representatives from the constituent municipalities and, depending on the size of the planned city and the experience of the staff with large RM programs, outside experts in information management. Step Two: Analyze the Existing Situation After the RM committee has been formed, a snapshot of the pre-amalgamation records management programs in the constituent municipalities should be taken. The elements of this survey and some of the questions that must be asked are as follows. What policies and procedures are in place? Are they adequate? Are they philosophically consistent across municipalities? What are the qualifications of the records managers and their staff? Will their experience and qualifi- cations be suitable for managing a significantly larger RM program? Are the number of staff and other resources adequate? What measure of control does each city have over its existing records? Are the records clearly identified, well-indexed, and available without undue delays or is the situation chaotic? Records managers must, almost from the day of the amalgamation announcement, ensure that their issues are on the table and considered seriously by management. How do the various cities and towns organize their records? Are series of records common to every municipality organized the same way? (Generally, the answer is a resounding no. ) Are records Retention and Disposition Schedules in place? Have these been approved by legal services and by council? Are they consistent with new legislation? Are the records being moved offsite and eventually destroyed or preserved according to these schedules? Have essential records (council minutes, bylaws, etc.) been identified and protected appropriately? What is the volume of paper records? Where are they? What equipment is available? Is it compatible with that of the other cities? Is there enough filing equipment? Does each city have the same set of services attached to the RM function? What will be done with, for example, mail rooms or forms management groups if some RM programs manage these and others do not? What automated indexing systems are being used by the various municipalities? Are they compatible, both technically and conceptually? In addition to these questions, management and staff must be surveyed to see what they and their customers want in a records management program. What worked and what didn t work in the old city? Step Three: Developing the Plan The RM Planning Committee will have to take this information the good, the bad and the ugly and devise a plan that meets the business needs of the new city, not only for the long-term but from day one of the amalgamation. Service Delivery Model Decisions must be made regarding how to deliver RM services. Should the service function (counters, file rooms, storage) be outsourced to a private company? What records will be decentralized to the user s control? Will there be central records offices and, if so, how many and where? Making this set of decisions more difficult is their dependency on the decisions of other committees: Where will the new municipality s offices be? How many sub-offices will exist? Will functions be centralized or not? How many staff will the RM function be allotted? It is vital that senior representatives of the RM function maintain active dialogues with human resources, space planning, information technology and other committees, as appropriate. June/July 2001 municipal MONITOR 3

3 Records managers should also talk to their counterparts who have gone through this process in the past. Halifax, Ottawa and Toronto are just some of the more recent examples. Talk to the records staff there and find out what they did, what went right, and what pitfalls to avoid. Records Management Services, Tools and Infrastructure Essential services need to be identified and prioritized to ensure there is no interruption in service due to amalgamation activities. A very specific day one plan must be developed because a failure in counter service will be visible. How will the new city s recorded information be organized? Case files (permits, drawings, etc.) are usually simple to organize; the difficulty will come in developing a consistent coding structure for all the constituent municipalities case files. Subject files (administrative documents, policies, etc.) will also... the trend in recent years in large companies and government departments has been to create an information management function, usually comprised of the records management program and the corporate library functions. need to be analyzed and a consistent structure developed and implemented. Records disposition schedules need to be updated and made consistent. The new council will have to approve the new schedules and, until that is done, records managers will be unable to dispose of outdated records. Normally, disposition schedule development can only be completed after a records classification scheme has been developed. (Pre-existing schedules if they are deemed adequate could be applied prior to amalgamation to reduce paper volume.) An off-site storage solution will have to be developed. Paper records can be stored at commercial storage centres; however, there will be pressure to use free space in under-utilized city buildings. This leads to another set of problems: will the records stored in this building be adequately protected from unauthorized access, water damage, fire? Where will the new municipality s archives be located and what will be included? How much effort will be put into converting pre-existing records to the new system? This expensive conversion process can be avoided by using a day-forward approach, whereby only new material is codified to the new system; however, it is not without its drawbacks. Decide how to manage freedom of information requests. 4 municipal MONITOR June/July 2001

4 Devise an organization chart and staffing plan. Union agreements and Human Resources plans will be limiting factors. What training will be required for city staff? Probably some of the records will be managed by nonrecords personnel, especially in counter service operations. How will RM program managers ensure all staff understand their responsibilities? Organizational Issues The organizational placement of the records management function will be a major issue and there is no single answer as to which model is best. Municipal Records Managers have traditionally reported to the City Clerk s office and, in smaller centres, the clerk has had the day-to-day responsibility for records management. This may work in the new, larger city. However, the trend in recent years in large companies and government departments has been to create an information management function, usually comprised of the records management program and the corporate library functions. This may be part of the clerk s organization, but it could also be a primary division of a corporate services organization. Information Management is not Information Technology There is a widespread tendency to group records/information management with information technology (IT), on the premise that both groups are both responsible for managing information. This is misguided. IT Departments are responsible for building and maintaining the infrastructure for managing and moving information: networks, desktop platforms, software, telecommunications equipment. The information management function is responsible for setting information policy, defining procedures and best practices, determining how the city should organize and manage its information, and defining what can be destroyed, and when. For some of these activities, technology tools are required. Records/Information Management should work in close partnership with the technologists but as their client, not as a sub-section of the IT Department. Records/Information Management must identify and document the business requirements that relate to the management of recorded information and, when advanced technology is required to meet these needs, work with IT to ensure appropriate tools and systems are provided. The business requirements must drive the technology, not the other way around. Step Four: Get Funding How much money will the new program cost to develop? This is the big question. The RM Committee must tread a fine line between: Devising and recommending a Cadillac system, with all of their requirements and wish lists being met, and risk being seen as unreasonable; and 6 municipal MONITOR June/July 2001

5 ? What is Records Management? Recommending a pared-down Yugo system, assuming it will be accepted in toto and not receiving even that level of funding. What is probably best is to devise three or four options each building on the previous model and detail the funding requirements and benefits for each level. Equally important, quantify what would not be achieved if adequate funding is not provided. The Transition Board, and eventually the new council, must be aware of the consequences of their decisions. These are only some of the issues that must be considered. Space constraints preclude listing every issue that must be considered; special conditions in each municipality will also create unique challenges that must be managed. Effects and Benefits of Good Records Management A sound records management program will have the following shortand long-term effects: Information will be easily accessible to, and retrievable by, any authorized user. All information, regardless of medium, will be captured at creation or receipt, classified to a corporate classification system, assigned a retention period, and managed effectively through its complete life cycle, until its ultimate destruction or archival preservation. The integrity and completeness of the information created and received will be implicitly trusted by all municipal staff. Staff will be aware of their responsibilities vis-à-vis the management of information. What benefits will the new city reap from a good RM program? Productivity will be improved and costs reduced through easier access to records and less time spent looking for information. More timely, better management decisions are likely if a complete information view is readily available. There will be improved accountability to the public. The city will be better able to meet its legal commitments surrounding the management of recorded information, including responding to freedom of information requests. There will be improved information integrity and preservation of the corporate memory. There will be a reduced requirement for equipment and prime office space for paper records. In short, planning for, and investing in, the management of recorded information will result in improved customer service and lower costs. Records management or, more currently, Recorded Information Management, is the identification, classification and retrieval, storage and protection, receipt and transmission, retention, and disposal or preservation of records. Also included are the policies, systems, procedures, operations, space, equipment and personnel required to administer the records. What is a Record? The International Standards Organization s standard on records management (ISO/CD ) defines a record as Documents created, received, and maintained as evidence and information by an agency, organization, or person, in pursuance of legal obligations or in the transaction of business. Who is Responsible for Managing Records? There is usually a single person vested with the responsibility of being the records manager. However, the responsibility to meet a municipality s RM obligations must rest with all employees, not just RM personnel. All staff are responsible for ensuring that all official records, received or generated by them, are promptly integrated into their municipality s recorded information management system. June/July 2001 municipal MONITOR 7

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