Like their counterparts in the private sector, the events of 2020 have made it necessary for many government offices to adopt work-from-home practices. Using collaboration and conferencing tools, mobile texting and social media has made it possible to stay connected internally and with the public.
A challenge with these platforms is that government agencies have the added recordkeeping responsibilities to stay compliant with Sunshine laws. Modern communication tools present additional security challenges and have increased the volume and variety of records that must be retained and ready to deliver when requested.
There are steps that state and local governments can take to ensure that public records retention and oversight processes are comprehensive and secure in the unprecedented COVID-19 disruption.
Embrace collaborative technology and social media
Governments that are slow to adopt collaborative technology or communication channels like social media for fear of recordkeeping compliance risks are now forced to reconsider. It’s more important than ever for state and local governments to be able to function and continue to serve their constituents during a global pandemic.
“When CIOs talk about sending the state workforce home to work remotely, they know workers will be using collaboration platforms a lot more,” said Amy Glasscock, National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ Senior Policy Analyst. “These are your applications like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype.”
While embracing digital tools and social media is paramount, it’s important to recognize that state business communications are subject to public record laws. These records must be retained and available for production.
Rethink paper-based processes and wet signatures
Processes that have traditionally been paper-driven have technological alternatives. Redesigning processes to reduce physical documents also reduces other challenges — bottlenecks, human errors, incomplete forms. Digital processes can improve efficiency by automating formerly manual or tedious tasks.
“Some counties offer a marriage app that allows couples to submit all the necessary forms from their phone,” said Rita Reynolds, National Association of Counties’ CEO. “This helps citizens continue with their lives even in the midst of a pandemic.”
While paper-free processes have gained popularity, Glasscock admits that governments are slow to adopt e-signatures. Until now.
“We’ve heard from CIOs that the biggest shift since the pandemic is the use of electronic signature software,” said Glasscock. “That was one of the last aspects of a process people were willing to give up, but it’s different now. In fact, I think that it’s going to be more widespread and welcome in government now.”
Don’t wait to develop or advance records guidance
Government agencies that do use collaborative communication technology still need to find ways to capture and preserve work-related messages and communications that take place on collaboration applications, social media and mobile devices.
“Many of the states and local governments had to rapidly adopt new technologies,” said Thomas Ruller, the State of New York’s State Archivist. “This crisis has forced many big decisions that have normally taken years to evolve to be made very quickly.”
Fortunately, this isn’t the first time states and local governments are examining how to best preserve digital content. This has been an ongoing discussion since the 1960s when electronic records first made an appearance, and in the 1990s, when email became a popular communication channel.
“The idea of digital records certainly isn’t new for states,” said Glasscock. “In fact, between 2006 and 2016, there was a 1,693% growth in state and territory digital records.”
The key challenge during this time is that many agencies now find themselves suddenly faced with a large volume of communications content. While this can be intimidating, Glasscock points out that agencies already have rules in place.
“The main thing to keep in mind is to stick to your records retention policy,” says Glasscock. “Know that a record is a record, no matter what the format is, and do what you’ve always done as far as classifying and retaining your records based on your policy.”
Train staff to work remotely
Long-term remote work is an increasingly realistic possibility. While many counties have reopened, governments should still plan to develop a technological infrastructure that can support remote workers for various reasons, including future pandemics, local disasters or even employee demands.
“It’s helpful to remind staff that they should keep personal and business accounts separate,” said Glasscock. “It helps to keep public records on public accounts, which will reduce the risk of costly legal battles over public records and make long- term access to electronic records simpler.”
Be prepared to meet future requirements
State and local governments have made great progress in digitizing government records and integrating collaboration tools into daily communications and processes, particularly during the pandemic. With remote workforces likely to persist in one form or another, government offices must prioritize identifying, acquiring and budgeting for the technologies needed to enable records management and archival across all public-sector communication channels.
Once the country fully reopens, information requests will inundate state public safety offices, making this concern even timelier. Securing the new class of digital communication instruments is paramount.
This article is based on the recent webinar: Government Records Management and Collaboration. You can watch the full webinar here.
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