It’s time for a reality check on the information and records management profession.

Record keeping technology for both digital and physical records has been on the market for over two decades. Professional degrees, diplomas, certifications, designations and industry associations have been around for even longer. Public sector is often assumed to be among the best-equipped of industry verticals when it comes to information management.

So why do we continue to read about information and record-keeping horror stories in mainstream news? Let’s take a look at three government institutions in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. A review of real-world records-handling practices can help demonstrate the gap between the current state and a desired state for managing public sector information assets.

FOI 9-1-1!

A shopping mall collapse in a small town results in the tragic loss of life. Building inspection records naturally are a focal point when evidence emerges that persistent water leak problems were present at the site of the structural failure. This town is subject to a freedom of information law, called the “Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act” (MFIPPA).

Town employees, when faced with such freedom of information requests from journalists covering the collapse, phoned the police rather than initiate the FOI process. Only when authorities explained the legitimacy of the requests and the requirement to produce the inspection records did city staff comply, releasing engineering documents that revealed evidence of known structural flaws.

Records Retention Schedule – Scenario 1 – Freedom of Information Requests

Burn, Baby, Burn

A request to help out the fire department takes a bad turn for the police force when paper documents gathered for a “file burn” ended up in hallways, trash bins and abandoned cars, with no verification of proper incineration. While supervised burning is an accepted method of record destruction in many jurisdictions, it is typically done in a controlled environment with sign-off on full incineration, not as a training exercise for wannabe firefighters.

Personnel and health records, job applications and other police files were found partially burned, abandoned or otherwise unattended after being handed over to the fire department for use in a training exercise.



Records Retention Schedule – Scenario 2 – Destruction of Personnel Records

A Toxic Situation

A state-run hospital not only inadequately protects and manages sensitive personal medical files, but mishandles poisonous and radioactive waste from laboratories. Patient records are stuffed into unlocked, unsecured filing cabinets, left unattended or placed in dirty public areas affected by toxic chemicals and medical waste.

Health and safety procedures are clearly ignored, dumping dangerous substances contrary to regulations. Furniture, equipment and other expensive items are not tracked as assets or managed in line with their value and cost. A contractor engaged to help sell and dispose of excess assets is maligned when he turns whistle-blower on the negligence.



Records Retention Schedule – Scenario 3 – Managing Patient Medical Records

Why Are We Still Struggling with Old Lessons?

The basic components of an information management program are: documented procedures, consistent practices, oversight of people and enterprise content by educated managers, and the use of technology to protect, capture and manage information across its life cycle. These three cases may be classic “bad apples”, but how many organizations would be shocked by their real-life retention and disposition schedules if they were accurately documented “as is”?

Poor practices, bad behavior and inadequately trained employees will continue to invite an unwanted spotlight of embarrassment on organizations who fail to take document and records management seriously. With each scandal that makes the news, the trust we have in institutions, companies and the people who run them erodes a little bit more.

As regulators, enforcers, legislators and essential service providers, public sector organizations need be information management leaders by example -- by doing the right thing, not the careless thing.

Editor's Note: Follow Cheryl's column on information and records management, including this one: Not Sitting at the Grown-Ups Table: The Problem with Records Management.