Spring Cleaning in August!

August may seem like a strange time to talk about spring cleaning.  However, our Members frequently ask us throughout the year about record retention issues for their documents.  A sound record retention policy would help keep an organized, well-functioning office.  A former local government co-worker told me how she once attended a seminar on how to organize your office.  The speaker told her that a local government office, especially a government law office, had no hope of ever being organized!  It is difficult to find another type of entity that produces and receives more records than a local government.  Our offices may look more like Fibber McGee’s closet than we care to admit.  

We tend to ignore the issue until we must hastily clear space by either throwing piles of somewhat-related documents in a drawer (a long-honored tradition!) or by scanning documents into electronic storage, hoping we will be able to retrieve them later.  We all know from experience that documents that are not readily retrievable due to a lack of organization are almost like not having them at all.  Local governments should have an established program where everyone is using the same methods of organizing retained records and using an agreed upon destruction schedule for specific documents—that way, everyone would know if a particular document would still be kept by the entity and where to find it.  In fact, SDCL 1-27-18 requires governing bodies of local governments to “promote and implement the principles of efficient records management for local records.” (Emphasis added)  The statute also encourages them to accomplish that directive by adopting their own local records management programs which follow, as far as practical, a program established for the management of state records.     

Adoption of a sound records management program provides many benefits to a local government, including a reduction in the use of valuable office space for paper file storage, a likely reduction in storage costs, and a reduction in staff time spent filing and retrieving documents.  The program will preserve records of continuing value while allowing the orderly destruction of records that are no longer useful. 

A good foundation exists to formulate your own program if you do not have one already.  As you may be aware, the State of South Dakota Bureau of Administration, Records Management Program, the Department of Legislative Audit, and the South Dakota Municipal League in conjunction with many local government representatives, issued a model Records Retention and Destruction Schedule (The Schedule).  The Schedule can be obtained through the SDML website at sdmunicipalleague.org.  The Schedule provides a uniform retention and destruction schedule for most types of municipal records that could easily be adapted for use by other local governments.  The Schedule recognizes the importance of preserving the public entity’s history for future generations, while also providing for the systematic and legal destruction of unnecessary records. 

Since the Schedule was issued in 2004, the technology available has grown exponentially.  High speed scanners and other imaging technologies have greatly improved our ability to electronically store items both expeditiously and accurately.  Any documents should be scanned through an effective OCR process that allows them to be searched by key terms at a later date.  The stored files’ structure should also be kept simple for more accessibility.  Expanding technology has also created new types of data that were not contemplated by the Schedule that may need to be addressed by your program, including texts, entries on local government website or Facebook pages, and other emerging types of electronic communications with citizens.  My teenage children have mastered these types of communications to avoid talking to their parents.     

Before adopting a program of your own, you should consult with your local government’s attorney on any unique retention or destruction requirements.  For instance, the Federal Government may have specific retention requirements for some of your records.  The planned destruction of some original documents, including records more than 50 years old, records required by the Records Destruction Board to be kept 50 years or longer, annual reports, maps, minutes, or photographs, requires prior notification to the state archivist.  See Administrative Rules of South Dakota 24:52:11:04 (Preservation of Government Records).  Also, any claims or litigation issues may dictate the duration that certain documents are stored.  For a more in-depth discussion on that topic, see the March 2018 issue of South Dakota Municipalities, “Electronic Data Storage is Great. . . Until You Get Sued—A little prior planning can prevent big headaches later,” by Chris Madsen, General Counsel of Claims Associates, Inc.

Any records retention program needs to consider the amount of possible electronic storage for your local government’s computer system.  Your IT personnel or vendor should be consulted to determine the most cost-efficient methods and storage capacity hardware needed for your entity, both now and in the future.  Several neighboring public entities in South Dakota have pooled their limited resources to afford to retain a knowledgeable vendor to identify and provide the best solutions for all their needs.  These successful joint efforts are another example where pooling works best, just like the 427 Members of the SDPAA have done in providing liability and property coverage for local governments!          

While scanning is desirable from a document management and storage standpoint, it can sometimes have its shortcomings.  For instance, original plans or blue prints submitted to a Planning and Zoning official may be very difficult and time-consuming to scan accurately.  The time and expense needed to meticulously scan these types of documents should be weighed against the resources expended to merely maintain an original of those documents.      

Formulating and drafting a sound records retention program may seem daunting at first but you do not need to reinvent the wheel.  The Schedule will provide the framework.  Several of your colleagues have experienced the same journey and could provide guidance.  All the initial effort will be worthwhile for years to come in saved staff time and saved storage costs.  Most importantly, psychological studies have clearly demonstrated that clutter around your work area actually makes it more difficult to concentrate and accomplish tasks.  Your entire team’s productivity can improve in a more organized office setting.   Wouldn’t you rather come to the office staring at a clean desk in the morning?  

Dave Pfeifle, Executive Director, South Dakota Public Assurance Alliance