Bringing Order to Paper Chaos
The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.
Despite the rise of technology, municipal governments continue to remain paper driven organizations. Many of our processes generate voluminous sheaves of paper. Further, we often are hoarders, not quite comfortable in getting rid of documents out of a concern that we “may need that again.” Implementing a clear records management strategy can bring order to this paper chaos. From greater efficiency in finding and retrieving needed documents, to regaining office space currently given over to boxes, cabinets and binders, decluttering the paper is an achievable project that can have a meaningful long run return.
Convene your Municipal Records Committee and review your Town’s Records Retention Policy. As outlined in RSA 33-A:3, the committee consists of the “municipal officers or their designee together with the clerk, treasurer, an assessor, and tax collector.” Most likely, this is not one of the more active town committees. Next, determine whether a formal retention policy exists or if one needs to be created. Most municipal documents are subject to minimum standards listed in the Disposition and Retention Schedule of RSA 33-A:3-a. However, your community may have differing preferences for longer retention periods for specific types of records and these should be clarified by the committee. Ideally, this local list will accompany a full records retention policy that provides guidance to all departments (see example at http://goo.gl/6Vx1l0.
Harvest the Low Hanging Fruit
Armed with your Retention Policy, purge the records that are beyond the required retention time. This may mean visiting the attic, basement, outbuilding, shed or other place where paper files are stored and usually forgotten! Some items will be clear for easy disposal while others may need to be set aside for further sorting. Among the various documents, there will likely be some that require secure disposal and/or shredding. Since you’re probably beginning a high volume job, consider obtaining a secure paper dumpster from a shredding company that will deliver it to your site and collect it and shred the contents when the bin is full. Progress will be faster and most likely the standard office shredder is not up to the task. The Litchfield Police Department regained two thirds of the floor space in their records room in under a month by employing this strategy.
Go On a Diet
For records that are retained, start the process of weeding out extraneous pages. The usual lifecycle of an active file is that it retains all relevant papers, notes and support during the life of the issue and then, upon resolution, the entire package is filed with relief that the project is complete. Open a drawer, pull out a stored file and review the contents. Chances are good that some material is no longer vitally necessary to retain. Consider if electronic copies of relevance are readily available and retrievable, meaning a paper copy can be removed (unless it is required under law/policy.) The Litchfield Police Department found many cases where over 90% of the paper documents stored were no longer necessary. This process can be time consuming, so encourage gradual progress with a target of a certain number of files per day. Providing extra recycling bins and boxes can assist. This retrospective paperwork reduction can guide future filing as new files targeted for storage are decluttered before filing.
It Doesn’t Come Easily
A significant part of records housekeeping is manual work. Once you have developed a system and have identified the likely issues, look for extra hands that may help. Over the years, I have seen departments engage community volunteers, interns, high school students in need of community service hours as well as employees on temporary alternate duty to assist. Consider, as well, future use and retrieval requirements. It can be tempting to hand off full unfiltered boxes of documents for optical scanning and storage. In some cases, this is a great alternative for managing certain types of records. If a document is subject to disposal in a few years, though, consider whether it is cost effective to pay for scanning and storing that document. An organized and labeled box may suffice. Similarly, if a document is accessed a limited number of times or rarely, the box may be a better choice as well. Large documents, items with relatively frequent uses or certain reference records, such as meeting minutes, though, may be more useful in a scanned format. [Ed. note: meeting minutes must also be retained in paper format under RSA 33-A:5-a.] Remember to consider the long term cost of maintaining, storing and accessing that digital record, recalling that data formats, storage and retrieval costs are all subject to rapid technological change and potential obsolescence. Paper has been with us longer than the PDF.
Go On A Diet, Part II
Having made progress on controlling the quantity and contents of your records, consider next the physical storage of these files. Most likely, the well intentioned efforts to store these files are making conditions worse. An accumulation of paper clips, binder clips and rubber bands all expand a file’s waistline. Whenever possible, purging these extra items will return some drawer space. Next, consider the system in your drawers. Many of us have hanging file systems. Unfortunately, these are the carbs of the filing world. Hanging file racks consume valuable drawer space. Then, the folders themselves take additional room. Adding further insult to injury, a separate folder is usually placed within the hanging folder. If all of the paper was removed from a drawer of hanging folders, the drawer would still be 40% full. How many extra filing cabinets are we using simply to support the hanging folder infrastructure? The dramatic solution here is the replacement of the hanging folders with in-drawer filing racks that hold standard folders. By swapping out just the equipment, at least one third of the drawer becomes available again. Less dramatic, but still effective, is removing the interior protective folder. Each December in Litchfield, our accounts payable cabinet drawers were jammed full. By removing the interior folders, those drawers were easily usable throughout the year. Consider, as well, when an item has earned the right to its own folder. In general subject files, we apply a rule of thumb that it takes five pieces of paper to receive a dedicated folder. Items with fewer than five pieces get filed in a miscellaneous file under the key letter.
Don’t Feed The Beast
In addition to managing the records already in your office, consider strategies that minimize the creation of new ones. For many intermediate work documents and items not subject to any retention requirements, electronic formats are sufficient for review and operational use. In Litchfield, we archive a variety of monthly financial reconciliation documents electronically, retaining the final approved paperwork for retention. Using storage and sharing tools such as Google Drive, Microsoft SharePoint and Dropbox can ensure controlled access while minimizing paper. Moreover, these documents can usually be accessible from a variety of locations, while the paper copy exists in only one drawer (or worse, the same document is stored multiple times across various offices so every user can reference it.) For instance, over the course of a year, we archive a variety of financial documents in a shared Google Drive folder for audit review. At the time of the annual audit, we simply digitally share access to the folder with the auditors rather than handing off boxes of paper. Our comprehensive use of digital storage and collaboration via Google Apps for Government allowed Litchfield to purchase 28% less paper in 2013.
Get Professional Help
In some cases, the incremental steps outlined above will jumpstart the housekeeping process and provide sufficient gains. For more chronic challenges, a municipal records management program may benefit from outside assistance. A variety of vendors are available for a range of solutions from technology to paper. Obtaining the funds may not be easy. Filing doesn’t stir the excitement of many public officials. Losses due to inefficiencies may not be easy to quantify. In some cases, the cost avoidance argument is effective. The Plaistow Police Department implemented a comprehensive records management program that they can trace to alleviating some pressure for facility expansion. If records are adding to facility space issues, professional assistance and investment in a records management strategy is cheaper than expanding a facility to store more records.
In the absence of a clear records management program, municipalities waste significant effort searching for information, misplace key information and make unnecessary expenditures on office space, filing equipment and materials. Finding a way to control municipal records enhances the quality of service to our constituents and the prudent use of taxpayer funds. At the same time, our employees who use these files daily will find their work environment enhanced. Ten years ago, I started down this path reluctantly; after all, who gets excited about filing? After rolling out a variety of records management strategies over that time, the changes have been positively and enthusiastically embraced by Police Chiefs, Town Clerks, Tax Collectors, Finance Directors, Assessors, Planning Coordinators, Building Inspectors and Administrative Assistants. A commitment to records management is one of the few actions we can take that can directly impact the quality of daily work throughout the municipality.
Jason Hoch is the Town Administrator in Litchfield. There are no paper files on his desk at the end of the day, ever!