Five Ways to Protect Your Agency From Public Records Headaches
With COVID-19 lockdowns and civil unrest turning up the heat in 2020, constituents have been clamoring for more transparency from government agencies. Public records requests play a big part in ensuring this obligation. However, some agencies are struggling to produce records completely, or in a timely manner — which can result in lawsuits, fines and reputational damage.
By making the records response process easier, more efficient and less costly, government agencies can avoid adverse consequences of incomplete or late public records responses. Here are five ways to strengthen your processes and protect your agency:
1. Move to digital processes when possible
The pandemic has made it clear: digital processes and capabilities help organizations stay nimble and functioning, despite major disruptions. If a public agency moves to a digital-first process, team members can do their job from anywhere.
Paper-based processes require workers to manually complete and manage tasks onsite. Beyond limiting workers to physical offices, using only physical documentation can cause:
- Unintentional errors
- Incomplete information
- Misfiled, difficult to find documents
By redesigning traditionally paper-based processes, agencies can improve efficiency and flexibility. Previously manual tasks can be automated, allowing workers to focus their time on mission-critical tasks. Government agencies can even rethink wet signatures. With electronic signature software, official documentation can be signed and processed whether a worker is working onsite or remotely.
Deploying digital processes gives government agencies more business continuity resilience. They can also improve the quality-of-life for everyone involved, including constituents. Public records requests, applications and even marriage licenses can be completed and submitted online.
2. Check your state's retention schedule
Government transparency is a key concern for constituents across the country. When records can’t be found or are deleted in ongoing public records requests, red flags are raised along with the potential for major fines or lawsuits.
A reporter’s request for COVID-19-related emails from a city in Southern California went unfulfilled for two months. The reporter was concerned that she may not receive her request at all, or that it would be incomplete because the city had implemented one of the shortest records-retention policies in California at 100 days. This policy contradicts the California Public Records Act, which requires that all communications be kept for a minimum of two years.
The delay in processing the request did indeed affect the completeness of the request. Because it took months for the city to even initiate the reporter’s request, some of the emails the reporter sought were deleted from the city’s server. As a result, a lawsuit was filed against the city.
On the other side of the country, New Hampshire’s governor’s policy of deleting office emails after 30 days is at odds with constituents' ”right to know” under the state’s constitution. This has resulted in a public records lawsuit seeking communications from the governor about particular state legislation.
To reduce ambiguity and the risk of fines, lawsuits and unfavorable media attention, local agencies should be sure to follow their state’s retention schedules.
3. Capture and archive all channels used by workers
It’s not just emails that need to be retained. Instant messaging, collaboration platforms, texting and other forms of communication are gaining popularity within government agencies. These all need to be captured and archived when they are used for business communications.
But with tools as dynamic as Slack or Microsoft Teams, allowing employees to stay always connected comes with the challenge of preserving new types and growing volumes of communications data. Public agencies must prioritize modern technology solutions that capture and archive new and emerging applications and all associated communications data.
4. Create a strong records retention policy
Employees are human. Mistakes can be made, and accidents happen. By implementing an archiving solution that can capture and index all communication records the moment they are created and from any device, agencies can prevent the accidental destruction of records. A proper records retention strategy should not rely on employees to save records from their individual devices.
What can happen on personal devices or accounts can easily happen on work devices or accounts. Even something as simple as an employee’s child spilling food and drink on a work phone can destroy the device. Whether your employees use agency-issued devices or personal devices, there must be a plan in place to capture and archive necessary communications.
Also, a records retention policy needs to consider how long it really takes to obtain and prepare records. Going through proper channels to obtain an extension can improve transparency and help reduce the risk of fines and lawsuits. In some cases, clarifying the scope of a request can save a lot of time and resources in producing the requested record.
5. Train staff on appropriate business communications
While records retention applications can be automated to capture communications, this doesn’t replace a strong communication policy. It’s important for staff to know:
- Which communication tools are allowed for work communication — and which are not (i.e., texting is okay but using Slack is not allowed)
- What’s considered government-related communication (including outside interactions with vendors, consultants and other agencies)
- Code of conduct policies for government communications
A policy should stress that personal accounts should not be used for government communications. If personal accounts were used, then records on those accounts may be considered public information.
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