The COVID-19 pandemic catapulted local government into a situation where the digitization of records has become critical. Where many CIOs have spent years trying to accomplish the task, a pandemic succeeded overnight in decreasing our need for paper! While this challenge has brought about opportunities, I want to share five areas that are critical to the automation of records: governance, security, innovation, procurement and records retention. As local governments have shifted to a remote workforce model, implementing governance around where those records are located is now a bigger issue than ever before.
Department directors were unsure how or where to turn to address the need for immediate automation of critical citizen processes. Technology service providers stepped up and offered critical solutions to local government for no cost. It was great to see this collaboration and to see that county technology leaders, in many instances, were included in the decision-making process from the beginning.
Paramount to the ongoing success of these initiatives is a strong governance framework consisting of key county stakeholders, including the county CIO or IT director. Regardless of whether on-premise or cloud solutions are being implemented, having technology leaders at the table from the beginning is a key to successful governance of the records management process.
For this to work correctly, the paradigm of IT being a department of roadblocks must shift. Technology leadership needs to be involved in discussions long before a software solution is procured. That’s not anything new, but the need is exacerbated under the current circumstances. To accomplish an effective governance strategy, CIOs and/or IT directors must have a strong working relationship with the business managers and an open door of communication. When business managers are approached with technology ideas, their first thought should be to pull the CIO or IT director into the conversation. That puts a responsibility on the IT leader to be open, communicative, solution-oriented, and positive.
Technology leaders can help contribute to a strong governance framework by always asking the question: have you thought through the business process workflow to determine where technology is needed and where changes to existing roles, duties or processes can reduce paperwork?
With the rise of telework, recordkeeping policy needs to be expanded to cover the proper care of paper records that an employee may have at home. This means that the county should require the employee to properly store paper records in a temporary and secure location within their homes; and that they should not be taking those paper records to other locations, like the local coffee shop. (Though social distancing requirements of the pandemic are helping cut down on taking paper records anywhere!)
It also means that the digital records being created outside the official county walls should only be transferred to county-approved digital locations. Employees should be trained on the proper locations. Personal email accounts, USB drives or unauthorized cloud service should not be used to store such records.
The opportunities for technology innovation with records are numerous. Here are just a few:
- Digitize existing file cabinets using a document imaging solution and get rid of the file cabinets! We don’t need those huge file cabinets or carousels (like in the elections department) anymore! Opportunities are there to repurpose or reclaim needed space and restructure to accommodate the new normal guidelines for social distancing
- Transition employee administrative tasks, such as internal mileage reimbursement forms, to an online approval process
- Greatly reduce the need for printing. While staff took laptops home in March, they weren’t taking printers home. The need for printing and photocopying has declined for some counties by over 50% with remote working. And as employees return to the office, the reduction is still there — in some counties by the order of 40%. Employees are adapting to working with digital documents
- Replace personal notebooks with something like OneNote
- Replace paper forms with an automated solution that includes workflow and storage. Cloud and mobile app solutions are out there and being implemented by local government for citizen services such as wedding certificates and ceremonies, permitting, death certificates, restaurant inspections and case management
- Use e-signature whenever possible. If real estate can do it, why can’t local government? A couple of years ago my sibling and I were involved in selling our father’s home to an individual who was temporarily working in another country. It was amazing how everything was transacted through e-document signatures. The only part that had to be conducted in person was the initial agreement where a notary signature was required, which each of us could do locally. County government has started using e-signatures for some documents, but the pandemic pushed us into a world where many more government transactions needed to occur virtually
Will we see a rise in block-chain now for authoritative ownership? Perhaps, but it is too soon to know for sure.
With the trend for counties to move towards web-based, and in many cases, outsourced cloud solutions, CIOs and IT directors are in an even more important advisory position with procurement and contracting. They can ensure that contracts with third-party providers cover relevant terms and conditions (i.e. data/record ownership, cyber breach notification etc.).
Cloud solutions must be vetted thoroughly for government compliance and security. A strong contract will answer the following questions:
- Is the data in a segregated cloud?
- Is the data maintained within a US server farm at all times?
- Is the data backup also located within the US?
- What is the time frame for cyber incident notification or breach, and is it in line with state and federal government requirements?
- Can the county use a tool to back up the data on-premise?
- Does the product use a proprietary language or format? If we change vendors in a few years, how portable is our work, or are we stuck with the original vendor?
With the digitization of records, comes the need to review county records retention policy. Counties must remember that there are public records laws (varies by state) and FOIA compliance considerations. The technology solutions must allow county staff to manage and access documents using a methodology that enables timely response to such requests. This also includes electronic records/communications from technology used to bolster productivity in the work-from-home setting, including but not limited to tools such as Microsoft Teams.
Further adding to the complexity is the guidance that counties get from their states regarding retention schedules for different classifications of documents. There are also state laws regarding response sets of documents for legal discovery, as well as a methodology for documenting the destruction of documents that meet the retention end date. Meeting these requirements has become quite complex. Updating a records retention policy needs to happen sooner than later.
As one can see, the new normal has placed “virtual first” at the forefront of recordkeeping and technology in the public sector. Allowing the employee, the office and community services to be handled with little to no touching of paper at any time from any place has permanently changed recordkeeping, and I do not see county government going back.
For a deeper dive into the electronic communications you must be securely collecting and preserving, how to evaluate your current archiving technology and capabilities, and which security features to expect from an archiving solution, take a look at the Government’s Guide to Secure Recordkeeping.
Author: Rita Reynolds, Chief Technology Officer at National Association of Counties
Rita is the CTO at the National Association of Counties (NACo). In this capacity, she oversees the internal technology operations of NACo, as well as leads NACo’s technology programs and initiatives for counties. She is responsible for the new NACo technology blueprint, which includes managing the development and delivering of technology programming on initiatives such as cybersecurity, technology infrastructure and cloud computing. Rita brings with her responsibility for serving on multiple boards and workgroups over the years including the PA Digital Advisory Board, the Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center, and the NASCIO Cyber Security Workgroup. Rita also serves as the staff liaison to the NACo Technology Standing Committee and the GIS Subcommittee.
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