A (probably doomed) attempt to desensationalize Public Records reporting

So, I suspect that Journalists on a political beat pay more attention to potential changes in public records law than is warranted by public interest in the topic. This is not altogether surprising– Freedom of Information-like acts have a direct impact on journalists’ ability to do their jobs properly by collecting key information about the actions of state government and bureaucracy. Because of this impact on their livelihoods, however, stories about potential restrictions to public records access tend to be… um… a bit overexcited. We saw this on this very blog a few years ago with the Franklin County Brouhaha, and now we’re seeing it again closer to my own home with some stories about a change to retention schedules in Wisconsin.

On the one hand, great! Happy to see Public Records Law and retention scheduling in the news. On the other hand, both of these stories get a lot wrong about what is really going on in this situation. If only there were someone on a group blog who was informed about how Records Retention and Disposition worked in the State of Wisconsin…Hmm… Well, if there is such information I bet it’s past the jump.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am technically an employee of the State of Wisconsin, and while the schedule mentioned in these stories does not apply to UW, I do work with the Public Records Board to approve our local schedules. Because of that position I am also not going to comment on the political implications of these retention changes. (Much.)

So, what exactly is the issue here? Let’s check in with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

An obscure board overseeing public records in Wisconsin has quietly cut back on requirements to maintain some electronic records such as text messages about major taxpayer awards to businesses.

The action by the Public Records Board could limit the access of citizens and media outlets to information from texts, emails, Facebook messages and a host of other electronic methods that public employees might use to communicate about official actions.

Oh good! A value judgment in the second word of the story. The Public Records Board, which is so obscure it has its own subdomain on Wisconsin.gov, is responsible for setting Wisconsin records policy and approving records schedules for all state agencies (including those of UW). The board has designees from the Attorney General, Legislative Council, State Auditor, and the Governor, and is chaired by the State Archivist. As it works with every bit of state and local government to get records retention in place, it seems to me it’s “obscure” in the sense of “we in the media haven’t cared about this body before now.”

Wisconsin State Journal, can you give us any information that is more useful?

In at least two recent cases, the administration says it doesn’t have to keep certain “transitory” records and therefore can’t release records it doesn’t have.

That judgment is based on the decisions of an obscure eight-member body appointed by the governor and other state officials to oversee state records retention policy.

OK, that’s *better*, though I notice the word “obscure” is still used. So what’s this judgment all about? As it turns out, it refers to a revision in the state General Records Schedule for Administrative Records, which is (of course) not linked in the story. You guys are lucky you have me:

ADM00011 Transitory Records

Records of temporary usefulness that have no ongoing value beyond an immediate and minor transaction or the preparation of a subsequent (final) record. Transitory records and correspondence are of such short-term value that they are not required to meet legal or fiscal obligations, initiate, sustain, evaluate or provide evidence of decision-making, administrative or operational activities and are often maintained as informational by offices or individuals who do not have primary responsibility for them.

Event+0 and destroy confidential

Event is Final Date on Record, Created, Sent or Received

So, a word on this type of schedule. There are a lot of records created in every institution that are of incredibly limited value– think things like responses to calendar invites, one-word replies to messages, copies of meeting minutes for which you are not the record holder, etc. While these records *technically* document a business transaction, their administrative use is so limited that there is no real need to keep them once the event to which they refer is passed. Because the Wisconsin Public Records Law prevents destruction of ANY records unless they are scheduled, not having some sort of retention schedule for these types of messages, especially in the age of email, texts, and other quick-and-easy forms of communication, would absolutely choke the records keeping system of most agencies. UW doesn’t follow this schedule– we have our own for Transitory Business Communication– but the principle is the same. (There are some additional wrinkles to a schedule like this, which I’ll address shortly.)

Again, what’s the problem? State Journal again:

Under the previous definition, such records had to be retained “until no longer needed,” but under the new definition they don’t have to be retained at all.

Examples under the old definition included “routine requests for information that require no policy decision, special compilation or research are transitory to the sender and the recipient.” The new definition is expanded to include “emails to schedule or confirm meetings or events, committee agendas and minutes received by members on a distribution list, interim files, tracking and control files, recordings used for training purposes and ad hoc reports for individual use.”

This, to me, seems like a non-issue. The retention period change is kind of a difference in semantics rather than in retention responsibilities, and the records mentioned as examples in the new schedule are almost all of minimal administrative value, to say nothing of fiscal, legal, or historical. As a records manager AND an archivist, I would be looking for the information contained in these kinds of records elsewhere in summarized form: the official calendar file of the governor, for example, or the official committee minutes held by the records holder.

There must be something deeper here. Journal-Sentinel, take us home:

The Wisconsin State Journal had requested text messages related to the [large loan to a private business] that were referenced in emails already released under the open records law. On Aug. 25, the Walker administration denied the newspaper’s request for those text messages saying state officials do not have to retain such “transitory messages.”


In another case involving transitory records from October, it was disclosed that Capitol Police did not maintain all the records of who visited the governor’s mansion in the runup to his July entry into the presidential race before the filing of an open records request by the liberal group One Wisconsin Now.

So here is the real crux of the matter, less a problem of definition than one of application. The problem with a wide-ranging schedule for transitory records is that there may be a tendency by particular employees or administrative officials to over-apply that schedule to records, either as a simple housekeeping measure or for more nefarious purposes. I can only speculate on the motives behind this destruction, but in terms of their effect it seems to me like these records should have taken a longer retention time.

This is actually a great example of why consultation with an archivist is so important when putting together your retention schedule: said archivist may flag records that might have higher-than-usual historical interest, and which should be saved accordingly. NARA’s Capstone policy is an example of an attempt to do this by role instead of by function– some of the records in top officials’ accounts may have otherwise been transitory, but because of their source and/or recipient Capstone dictates that they be kept longer. The problem with Capstone, of course, is that you miss emails sent by people lower-down in the organization that may also be important for historical or administrative documentation. In the first case cited above, the subject of the request is described as “One of [Mike]Huebsch [a member of Scott Walker’s cabinet] top aides”– is that level of position high enough to warrant keeping text messages from that person? I don’t know without knowing the structure of that agency. It does seem like the visitor records to the governor’s mansion should have been kept for longer, particularly since the occupant of said mansion was running for president at the time.

As with so much else in Records Management, this comes down to advocacy– if you have a wide-ranging schedule that allows for early destruction, you need to do your best to talk to your records creators and make sure they know which records do and do not fall under it. Getting them to follow it is another question, one I certainly don’t have any answers for. Then, of course, there’s the issue of preserving Text Messages, IMs, Facebook posts, etc. for recordskeeping purposes, but I think this post is long enough without going into that…

In the interest of fairness, Gov. Walker indicated in a response to these stories that he “forwards all text messages related to state business to his state email account“. I leave the question of who determines what constitutes “related to state business” as an exercise for the reader.


3 thoughts on “A (probably doomed) attempt to desensationalize Public Records reporting

  1. Good blog post. I appreciate reading your thoughtful, real-life insights, Brad. Destruction of truly transitory records is part of good records management. But as you point out, there are hazards, including creator/user over-application of the definition. I would add the same risk of over- or inappropriate interpretation exists with other records viewed as inconvenient to retain, some for legitimate reasons, some more nefarious, to use your well-chosen term. The latter can include inappropriately early destruction or declaration of non-record status as I described in August in “Truth Bomb” https://nixonara.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/truth-bomb/

    The same vulnerability that I touched on in “Truth Bomb”–decision making on records scheduling and management by subordinated RIM officials–can affect all actions with records. Capstone is an excellent alternative (in the public or private sector) to having busy officials or their surrogates declare records status. As a former NARA employee who did some records appraisal during my past employment with the agency, I strongly support Capstone and applaud National Archives’ officials for developing it.

    That said, it is the records officials (often working in consultation with employing entity lawyers) in a governmental, academic, or corporate organization who determine which senior program officials’ accounts warrant the Capstone approach. Essentially, as in traditional RM, RIM and legal office subordinates decide which of their bosses’ records will survive longterm and which are ok for superiors to consign to the digital fireplace. How well this works will vary, as it always has.

    Because records officers are no more organizationally independent in the public sector than in the private sector, they potentially may face direct or implicit pressure to declare certain key officials’ accounts non-Capstone for the unacknowledged (and unacknowledgeable) purpose of reducing Capstone accounts to an absolute minimum. This may result in destruction of historically valuable records. Records management doesn’t occur in a pristine environment with protective firewalls around all the stakeholders. It plays out in ordinary workplaces, with the full spectrum of very mundane elements, positive and negative, that affect human beings on the job. I appreciate your realism here at the SAA RMRT blog. Realism is an essential first step in attempting to mitigate risk in destruction versus retention and striving for reasonable balance of competing workplace elements.

  2. Pingback: Records Managers: Not Making This Stuff Up, Part the Billionth | The Schedule

  3. Pingback: Transparency and its Discontents | The Schedule

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