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Digital Records Retention

Digital records retention: Is your agency making this common mistake?

Keeping government records is an established practice going back to ancient times.  Up until about fifteen years ago, it was pretty straightforward — retain important documents, file appropriately, procure from filing cabinet when needed. But the Digital Age has thrown a monkey wrench in records retention for governments.

The most frustrating part of the issue is how it keeps evolving. First e-mail, then online chat, then interactive web content, blogs, and video sharing.  And don’t even get us started on social media!  Every new web tool seemed to call for a new preservation strategy.  Internet backup, CMS revision control, data recovery — records managers have been hard pressed to find effective solutions, especially in tough economic times. Some agencies have paid for their retention mistakes the hard way — increased costs, litigation, and the like.

So what’s the most common mistake agencies make today in preserving digital records? Ignoring the issue and hoping it will go away!  Or, put another way, relying on outdated methods and hoping it will do the trick. The problem is, citizens are more tech-savvy than ever, and Freedom of Information is assumed to include ANY digital publication of an agency — whether that is an official dataset or a tweet from the local council person.

“[There’s a] public expectation that all web content is both permanently valuable and accessible,” explains NARA in its guidance on how to manage “Web 2.0” records.  There is really no question that agencies should be preserving their digital records just as meticulously as their traditional records — but how?

Surely we have all moved past the printing-and-filing method.  As for “revision control” and “backup” methods — often mistakenly believed to be sufficient — they don’t meet the standards for dynamic, exact, enduring copies of web content.  Social media has changed the game completely as more government/citizen interaction is happening in this transient environment — and some agencies have not started ANY retention strategy for their online content.

But don’t worry, there IS a practical solution to keeping your agency’s online content safe — website and social media archiving.  This is a process that can be automated, and equipped with search features so you can find the pages you need later.  Web crawlers capture copies of your online content as often as you decide, independent of specific technologies or databases, so you can “set it and forget it”.

With archiving, your web pages can always be viewed in their original form and deliver the same user experience, which is super important from a legal standpoint.  Archiving guarantees your agency will have the records requested for FOIA or e-discovery cases.  Doesn’t that sound like a better idea than hoping you don’t get asked for records you don’t have?

Trust us . . . this is one issue that will NOT go away if you ignore it!  On the contrary, ignoring it will eventually cost your agency time and money.  The obligation to properly preserve digital agency records is here to stay.

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