How (not) to schedule electronic messages: a case study/cautionary tale

Welcome to RIM Month! I have been promising/threatening my fellow Steering Committee members to write this post for a while now. My ability to write it, however, has been significantly impacted by the extent to which I have been absolutely BIFFING the process. Stakeholders have been angered; records management best practices/commandments have been violated; capstone models have been altered; hair has been pulled out in frustration; records managers have been called on the carpet*. The worst part is that it’s not even done! I’m at, at best, a holding pattern to a point where I can maybe, MAYBE submit a schedule to be approved by the state board next quarter. The frustration continues.

The tl;dr of the below: Scheduling electronic messages is COMPLICATED, particularly in the public sector. You are walking a fine line between the dictates of the historical record, the operational needs of the organization, the technical capacity of your IT department, and the political/legal considerations of the public officials affected. These four factors are, more often than not, diametrically opposed (yes, there’s four of them and they’re ALL diametrically opposed; that’s how complicated it is). I, frankly, did not walk the line very well. If we represent the hazards as shark tanks on all sides, I am currently on dry land, but bloody and scratched and missing some chunks. So: Learn from my mistakes! Don’t go charging in without considering the ramifications! This is a case where “better to ask forgiveness than permission” definitely does not apply.

This is, as per usual, going to be a long one; I’m probably breaking it up into at least 3 installments. For the purposes of this blog post (and what I was actually focusing on), I am going to refer specifically to scheduling text messages below, but the lessons learned can apply to emails, social media, and other forms of electronic communication as well (and, to a certain extent, to all formats of record). Read on after the jump.

*”Passive Voice is the refuge of scoundrels”—Unknown

Act 1: In Which Your Records Manager Is Surprised By a Text Archiving ‘Solution’

As part of my records schedule approval process here at the City of Milwaukee, I present my schedules to a City Information Management Committee, made up of key representatives from relevant departments/entities from across the City. Typically, I make some comments on my submitted schedules, field questions from the committee members, and either have my schedules approved to go on to the State Records Board, or asked to come back to the drawing board. Usually after schedule approval I stick around, because as an information professional agenda items of interest may come up on the agenda. This past December, that strategy was rewarded(?) by the City CIO’s presentation of a text archiving plan.

Some background here: the CIO and I have sparred previously on questions of record retention, particularly as pertains to email messages. I have argued that the City should have a separate email archive and that employees should go through retention/classification training; she has argued that, thanks to the City’s contract with Microsoft, all email is being kept permanently anyway and that she doesn’t trust records creators to classify their own messages (which, fair). Obviously, I have some Opinions from a records management standpoint both about the nature of “permanent” in an electronic records context and the necessity of keeping all emails forever (even the spam? Even the CCs? ), but the response to those Opinions had heretofore been frosty, at best. This is from a certain point of view, understandable; the CIO is operating under a very traditional IT heuristic of “storage is cheap, cloud storage especially so” and so is not terribly concerned about efficiencies from records management, or the longevity of historic records, vs. the costs of owning/operating systems in the present. So I had just about come around to the fact that I needed to revisit the application of records management to email at a later date—potentially much later.

The text archiving plan presented at that December committee meeting, to me, risked committing some of the same mistake.this-far-no-furtherThere was an acknowledgement that text messages were, in fact, records (good), but there was no acknowledgement that some text messages were more valuable than others—the plan, as with email, was to send all city employees’ texts to a text archiving service and retain them for the foreseeable future. The rest of the committee seemed to be OK with this plan; I, on the other hand, had a bit of a Captain Picard in First Contact moment. The way said moment is described in the minutes, “Mr. Houston commented”, does not quite do justice to the, ahem, enthusiasm with which said comment was made. Gesticulation and/or table-pounding may have happened. That said, ultimately I think it was a discussion which needed to be had; it ranged from a discussion of the nature of the historical record to the value of records management to the “invisible costs” of keeping electronic records permanently. The upshot was a charge to me to work with IT and Legal to draft a schedule for text messages, and for me to write a committee detailing some of the “hidden costs” associated with permanent retention of texts and emails. It’s a start!

This is, as mentioned, a bit of a saga,

This may or may not be footage from the meeting. My beard is getting pretty robust if I’m honest…

and I’m over 1000 words already, so I’m going to pick this up tomorrow. But I’ll try to end my daily posts with takeaways; the one for today is don’t be afraid to speak up. I got raked over the coals a bit at the meeting for arguing that records creators should be responsible for their records and that the Exchange email “archive” isn’t really, but by the end of the discussion I did have at least two members of the committee sympathetic to my position. One of them actually questioned why we weren’t treating electronic records the same way as paper records, which: see GIF. Even if you don’t win immediately, you at least plant the idea in people’s minds that maybe your way is at least worth considering.


Tomorrow: the meeting with IT/Legal and what came after (or: “Brad trips over his own feet”).


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