5 Critical Records Management Tips for Newly Elected Officials and Staff

April 09, 2021by Smarsh

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The political landscape has shifted considerably in recent years, and analysts predict more changes to come with hotly contested seats at all levels of government. As newly elected officials step into their roles and take on the responsibilities of representing their districts, one thing they must be aware of is how they are communicating on all platforms. This is important for many reasons: displaying professionalism, conveying their dedication to the role they’ve been appointed to, and transparency in their interactions with staff, peers and the public.

Transparency in government is not only important; it’s an obligation. According to FOIA and state sunshine laws, government officials and their teams are required to capture and archive all business-related communications.

We talked with Paul Clanton, Senior Fellow at the Center of Digital Government, on what newly elected officials and their staff need to know about communications preservation and public records when they run for and take office.

1. Establish public-facing communications accounts

As a first step, those running for office should get into the practice of separating their personal accounts from government-business accounts.

“Once you declare yourself a candidate, set yourself up with separate everything: separate social media, separate emails, separate texts,” said Clanton. “Then carry that over into your public life, and then be aware of what channel you're using. If it's personal, keep it on your personal channel. If it's meant for your campaign, keep it in your campaign. If it's even remotely touching on agency business, my advice is to use those business channels.”

Differentiating business-related communications from personal accounts makes recordkeeping simpler. This is especially true with texting, which may cross over from personal to business and back to personal. This is important for new officials to remember because courts are ruling that business-related texts sent or received on personal devices are considered public records.

“There are still some jurisdictions where that is gray,” Clanton said. “That being said, laws always seem to lag behind technological advances. But just because they lag doesn't mean that they're going to be that way forever.”

2. Text messages must be archived

Governments are increasingly adopting text messaging as a normal communication channel for its ease and convenience. However, these quick transitory messages can easily turn into business-related conversations. It’s important for newly elected officials to understand how text messages are captured and archived when they enter public office.

Because of their transitory nature, agencies have been slow to adopt text archiving applications. While archiving a screenshot of a text message is a common approach, it isn’t enough, Clanton explained.

“Screenshotting and forwarding is another obligation that we have in terms of keeping records and preserving them. [Captured messages] have to be immutable. They cannot be changed. Even if you don’t alter a screenshot, people can accuse you of changing or deleting part of the conversation.”

3. BYOD can create risks

Communication security continues to be a key focus as hackers get more sophisticated. While elected officials are an obvious concern, government employees are prime targets as well. Newly elected officials need to protect their staff, especially if they operate in a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) culture.

However, Clanton noted that personal devices aren't a defense against public records requests. The public still has the right to request business-related communications on personal devices. “If the worker doesn’t have electronic device management or mobile device management (MDM) applications on their phone, then it's not a great solution.”

Clanton’s advice?

“If you have to use personal equipment or you feel strongly that it's something that you need to do, most agencies can install containerization or electronic device management solutions on your phone. This helps virtualize the environment, so you have separate environments in a single device.”

Ideally, agencies can offer workers government-issued devices.

“From an IT perspective, a personal device is a huge threat,” said Clanton. However, government-issued devices managed by IT tend to have proper updates, security and endpoint malware detection.

“It's a pain to carry two cell phones and two computers, but it's much safer,” said Clanton. “From a public perception standpoint, it’s much cleaner to do so. They have the advantage of all those security benefits.”

4. Know your recordkeeping laws

Newly elected officials should speak with their agency’s attorney to understand:

  • What is considered a public record
  • How it needs to be archived
  • Required retention periods for public records
  • When can you destroy a record — if ever

These can be different depending on state and local laws. And as new communication channels are used and workforces become more remote, the scope of electronic public records will continue to grow exponentially.

This will also cause individual state sunshine laws and FOIA requirements to change. Non-compliance and the consequences of violating these laws will result in fines and litigation. Even worse, it can damage the newly elected official’s reputation.

5. Know when a message is transitory — and when it isn’t

States have varying degrees of clarity when it comes to defining what qualifies as a record. However, even the best definitions struggle with transitory records.

What if a friendly instant message or text conversation naturally flowed into a business conversation?

“It's a difficult thing to say sometimes with friends, but we have an obligation to the people who pay us — the public — to make sure what we're doing is transparent,” said Clanton. “I have friends that are in the private sector who could be in a position to sell to me. And when the conversation would turn that way, I would have to say, we can go just so far with this before we have to turn this into more of a business conversation.”

Or, what if an elected official sends a chat message to her staff telling them that she’s on her way but will be five minutes late to an official meeting. Does that need to be archived?

“Some of those may be subject to retention in some way, shape or form,” says Clanton. “Things like Zoom and Microsoft Teams and all of those popular channels are really good for a quick chat. Just make sure you're keeping the conversation on the right device, in the right account, using the proper channel.”

Get archiving right, right from the start

One of Clanton’s best pieces of advice to new government officials — or agencies, in general — is to use a modern archiving solution that can automate recordkeeping and public records retrieval.

This is of great benefit to their role and reputation. Having unaltered proof of communications, in context, gives elected officials the opportunity to perform their job without the worry of being misrepresented by reporters or watchdog organizations.

Additionally, it makes the process more efficient and less costly and time-consuming. With a comprehensive archiving system in place, records can be automatically captured and stored and retrievable — helping recordkeeping managers and staff respond more easily and accurately to public records requests.

To learn more about what newly elected officials need to know about records management, you can watch the full webinar here.

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Smarsh handles information you submit to Smarsh in accordance with its Privacy Policy. By clicking "submit", you consent to Smarsh processing your information and storing it in accordance with the Privacy Policy and agree to receive communications from Smarsh and its third-party partners regarding products and services that may be of interest to you. You may withdraw your consent at any time by emailing privacy@smarsh.com.