Archiving tips for public sector agencies

Although saving time and money are two major factors that go into selecting an automated archiving solution, look for one that will make responding to records requests easier.

In my former role as the CIO for the City of Tallahassee, Fla., I faced ongoing concerns about regulatory oversight for timely archiving and retrieval of digital communications like email and social media, to comply with public records requests.

Obviously, compliance is a major concern for the public sector, but I came to realize that the two largest hurdles for government organizations are the same as for any other industry -- namely, having enough time and money to do a good job. In the public sector, the challenge involves getting adequate funding, usually amid tight budget constraints, to purchase a comprehensive archiving platform that can help automate the recordkeeping and records-request process.

To make the case for a comprehensive recordkeeping solution, IT managers should demonstrate that it’s cost effective with a thorough cost-benefit analysis.

Important components of a cost-benefit analysis

When preparing a cost-benefit analysis, tabulate all the costs associated with the current recordkeeping and records request workflows, including:

  • Personnel costs associated with the hours spent locating and compiling records by employees and any additional staff hired to complete requests, including temporary workers.
  • Potential financial penalties or sanctions for non-compliance with public records-request laws.
  • Legal fees related to litigation involving public records.

An agency’s purchasing agents are more likely to approve a technology solution if the current workflow costs exceed the cost of the proposed solution. Emphasize other improvements for the organization and the community, such as timely response to public record requests, which may help save taxpayer dollars through quicker data retrieval and compliance with the federal Freedom of Information Act and other applicable laws.

IT managers should also outline the benefits from a cloud-based archiving solution. An automated solution in a hosted environment will require far less time than developing, managing and manually updating an in-house system. Implementation and updates are also easier to manage when they’re automatic and performed in the background and don’t upset the regular workflow of the organization.

Four key checklist items for automated archiving

With several cloud-based archiving solutions available, how can IT managers  choose the right one for their agencies?

For starters, check for these four key features to ensure the archiving solution will be affordable and effective and will grow to meet the agency’s changing needs:

1. Records format. This is an important but often overlooked point. Under FOIA and some local records-request laws, all records produced for review must be fully intact and look exactly as they did when they were shared, even as they move across platforms. Some systems flatten communications into an email-like format, which removes the functionality of embedded links or images that may lead to other resources and information. Look for a solution that can archive a conversation that begins with a text message and carries over to email -- or even social media. Additionally, communications must be able to be produced on-demand, meeting the FOIA requirement.

2. Robust search. Archiving systems are only as good as their search functions. A robust search is essential to facilitating records requests quickly and accurately. Look for a solution that performs wild-card and matching-word queries to widen the search and return all possible archived messages that align with the record request or e-discovery task. The solution should also retrieve records quickly. If it cannot respond fast enough, the agency can incur fines and penalties and may jeopardize the public’s trust in its competence and responsiveness.

3. Scalability. Agencies modify their electronic communications strategy over time as new content types such as text messaging, mobile apps and social networks are adopted and as new regulations are passed and enforced. Rather than buying multiple standalone solutions to address each new content type, invest in a comprehensive archiving solution that can accommodate existing and new communications platforms. Doing so allows archiving across content types and produces records from a single source, which can increase efficiency and save time.

4. Simplicity. Don’t forget the people who will be the active users of the solution. One of the benefits of an automated solution is that it reduces the burden on IT -- or whoever is responsible for managing the records request process. Efficiency features -- such as high-powered search functions and the ability to grow with new content types -- can go unappreciated if the technology itself is cumbersome or difficult to use. If the solution feels more like a chore to those who use it the most, the solution will quickly lose organizational support, which can create additional internal obstacles that impede the process of answering records requests.

Although saving time and money are two major factors that go into selecting an automated archiving solution, look for the total package -- the technology and  the vendor that will make responding to records requests easier. A comprehensive solution archives records across many content types -- including email, instant messaging, text messages, websites, social media and video -- and keeps them in a single, secure location so users can quickly and efficiently process records requests.

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