This blog has looked at the topic of records destruction before: the very able keyboards of Mark and Laura have touched on how, and why, respectively, and Carie has linked to a very clear example of what not to do and why.
I’d like to look a little more in depth at a different aspect of “how”: not “how” from a mechanical standpoint, but from that of business practices. Whether you burn, shred, bury, or pulp your records, there are right and wrong ways to go about doing so.
DON’T: destroy your records before their retention period has ended. This is fairly obvious, but should still be included on any do’s and don’t's list. It’s also an easier mistake to make than you might think: have you ever wanted to throw out a box labelled “miscellaneous records” without looking to see what’s inside? What about deleting all the email in your inbox to free up server space? Or, what about keeping the only copy of some key documents on an unstable CD? All of these examples can result in a premature destruction of the public’s records. If you are unsure of what retention period some of your records have, contact a records management analyst.
DO: file your records in such a way as to facilitate destruction when they’ve reached their retention period. Within many record series that have year-long retention periods or longer, it’s a good idea to arrange your records chronologically, or to subfolder your records by year. This way, when the retention period has ended, it will be easy to pull the files and destroy them. For example, monthly financial statements have a retention period of 3 years. By creating a subfolder for F.Y. 2012-2013 within this series, you’ll know that you can throw these statements out by the beginning of F.Y. 2016-2017.
DON’T: destroy records involved in a lawsuit, a pending lawsuit, or an audit. In the past, parties to a lawsuit have gotten in major trouble with the courts because they destroyed records relevant to a lawsuit, at a time when they were reasonably aware that such a lawsuit was going to be initiated. Even if your retention schedule says you can destroy these records, you must still keep them until any audit or legal action is resolved. The retention schedules indicate records that are likely to be involved in an audit or legal action with an asterisk.
DO: keep track of official records versus copies. We do not schedule unofficial copies on the retention schedule; these can be destroyed as soon as the person keeping the copy does not need it anymore. The official record, however, does need to be kept for the full retention period. An example of this would be finding a copy of the board’s minutes in a former councilmember’s papers. Minutes have a permanent retention period, but this copy does not have to be kept forever: unless these minutes do not exist among the official copies.
DON’T: put off records destruction for too long. Destroying your records on an irregular and haphazard basis can create plenty of long term problems. Storage costs will rise, and the task of destroying these records will get more and more daunting. This can also create problems when dealing with topic-related public records requests, or the discovery phase of a lawsuit: you will have more records to sift through–and hand over–than you would have if you had destroyed the records in a timely fashion. Finally, letting long, irregular gaps of time pass between records destructions make destroying your records look less like a regular, established business practice–and more like an afterthought.
DO: document major record destructions. Documenting record destructions creates a record both of what you had, and when it was destroyed. This is valuable information if a citizen asks to inspect a record that no longer exists, because you’ll be able to point to both the retention schedule that allowed you to destroy the record, and the evidence that you destroyed it. It will be a lot more cost effective, since you won’t have to hunt for a record before realizing it has already been destroyed. When combined with regular, annual destructions of your records, documentation will also help prove that you are following an established business practice when you continue to destroy records in the future.
As is so often the case with business practices, having something in writing and being consistent are key. Consider how and when you’re destroying your own records, and whether or not there is room to improve.