Protecting Government Records from Premature Destruction
November 11, 2011
In Federal agencies, the premature or accidental disposal of potentially vital records is unacceptable. Avoid such mistakes by keeping a firm grip on the best practices for disposition of vital documents and records.
Federal agencies are usually very careful with records, sometimes even preserving unnecessary or redundant tweets, blogs, Web comments and email. Why? Often, they fear losing valuable data among the inconsequential prose or worse yet, being accused of “hiding” information. Still, records are at risk from human error or even malicious intent. (That famous 18 ½-minute gap in the Watergate tapes, which eventually brought down a presidency, comes to mind.)
But even accidentally wiping out the wrong files can have equally dire consequences. Without those files your agency may not be able to properly meet the needs of the public, operate efficiently, meet regulatory or compliance obligations or even fulfill Freedom of Information requests. When a record is inadvertently deleted, federal guidance requires agencies to recreate as much of the lost information as possible from bits and pieces or earlier documentation stored elsewhere—a time-consuming and sometimes fruitless endeavor that most often results in an incomplete record.
Wouldn’t it be better if that information hadn’t been destroyed at all?
Unfortunately, government agencies simply can’t keep every scrap of data forever. The most-used records must stay on active duty, being easily accessible to workers and even to the public. Others with everlasting value will find their way to a permanent home in the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) archives.
So what about all of those records in between? Agencies are left to deal with towers of records stacked, at least metaphorically, around them. How can they ensure that someone doesn’t dispatch the wrong file to an early demise?
Identify Vital Records
This may seem like a no-brainer, but NARA’s 2010 Records Management Self-Assessment Report showed that nearly a third of the agencies responding still hadn’t taken that obvious first step—or didn’t know if they had.
Know Your Disposition Plan
Every agency has a plan that documents how and when agencies will dispose of records. No record can be destroyed without the implicit approval of that plan, which itself must have the approval of NARA. Per the Federal Records Act of 1950 and its subsequent amendments, which created a blueprint for the way federal agencies manage their records, NARA oversees records management and approves disposition plans.
Enforce a Records Management Policy
Clearly state a policy, put someone in charge and then make sure workers follow it to the letter. Well-informed and attentive staffers will take pride in handling records with care—which means they’re more likely to take the time to ensure against wrongful records destruction.
Invest in Training and Education
It’s hard to stress the important role of training in every government endeavor. When it comes to maintaining records, it's critical that workers understand which records are here to stay and which ones should find their way to the recycle bin or the shredder.
With its Army Records Information System, the U.S. Army has established life cycle management guidance for the “systematic identification, maintenance, storage, retrieval, retirement and destruction of Army information on any medium.”
It calls its information management guidelines “the only legal authority for destroying nonpermanent Army information.” Strong words for strong rules.
More questions about Records Storage Services for the Federal Government? Read additional Knowledge Center stories on these subjects, or contact Iron Mountain’s consulting services team. You’ll be connected with a knowledgeable product and services specialist who can address your information management challenges.
How Long is Long Enough: Records Retention and Your Agency
Managing Records the FOIA Way
Your Agency and the Open Government Directive
A Safer Space: Assessing Your NARA Compliance Status
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