Assessing Transitory Records: Is your records management policy clear?


A recent CBC article titled “B.C. tables new ‘duty to document law’ in wake of triple delete scandal” published March 9th, 2017 caught my eye.  In it David Loukidelis was quoted as recommending “a complete overhaul of the transitory records policy, which allowed politicians and officials to delete documents, especially emails, they consider inconsequential.”  It reminded me of a recent discussion in the ARMA Canada Region Forums on how to present the concept of “transitory” records to business users.  This post also follows nicely from Jayson Kennedy's excellent post on '2 (Gigantic) Myths of Records Management'.

In daily practice the concept of “transitory” records is regularly invoked during “clean-up” exercises when staring at a pile of old unstructured and semi-structured documents found on a computer network somewhere.  When you don’t know how to start sorting the pile it’s tempting to simply call them all “transitory”, press delete and hope for the best.  However that wouldn’t be a professional way to run a business.

Therefore every Information Management unit will probably produce a best practice on "Transitory Records" at one point.  Creating an in-house best practice is normally done by synthesize existing resources like: Library and Archives Canada (revoked), BC IAO “transitory” records and EDP records , Archives of Manitoba, NYU "non-records", Australian Department of Defence "facilitative items", JISC, Edinburgh Napier U "ephemeral/temporary records", etc.  However many IM practitioners have not had the time to ‘look under the hood’ of this concept.  So here we go!

It’s quickly evident that transitory records have a very short retention period and will be disposed of by destruction.  But the hard part is deciding if a piece of information is actually "transitory".  This is because we are really trying to decide how much value it has, how long it will keep that value, and what risks might occur if we don't manage the information carefully.  That’s a tricky task, because appraising the value of a piece of recorded information is more of an art than a science.  

People often try to define the value of a record by saying it is "evidence”.  But that quickly leads back to questions like: evidence to who, evidence of what, and how long do we need to keep this evidence to protect ourselves?  Everything is evidence of something to someone.  You can spend a lifetime reading different opinions on the relevance and strength of pieces of evidence.  To make it worse, sometimes low-value temporary records can suddenly become important pieces of evidence in legal arguments.  This happened with the famous memo in the Enron scandal.  So using the concept of evidence isn't a bad thing but it isn't enough.  

The SAA Glossary defines records as having “primary” Administrative, Fiscal, Legal and Operational values during the active stage of their lifecycle.  And a small percentage (1-5%) of records may also have “secondary” Research / Archival / Historical values.  The primary values help protect your organization from threats, and the secondary values can be leveraged to promote your brand and contribute to society.  Business users often focus on the very short lifespan of some records but forget about the importance of primary values.  This is why the BC Government Transitory Records special schedule contains notes about what types of records are not included in the scope.  There’s no end to scope notes like this, which is why policies and best practices need to be reinforced with regular training, automation and assessments.  So recognizing general values is important but we're still not done yet.

To determine the value of a piece of information it's also critical to understand of the context surrounding a piece of recorded information.  A staff member knows the limited context surrounding their emails about where to have lunch on Friday.  But they may not be sure about the context of an old document they found in a shared folder.  This is the role of a Records Manager – Someone who understands the mission and processes of your entire organization, and the business information those processes produce.  Records Managers can work with your subject matter experts to define the values and risks in records they create, and liaise with IT to automate the classification of information.

When testing the value of a piece of information I like to start with a couple of key questions:  Was a piece of recorded information created on the fly as a quick memory aid and likely documented elsewhere?  Then it may be an ephemeral/transitory record.  Was a piece of information formatted so people can refer to it repeatedly for guidance?  Then it may be an enduring official asset.  Of course most records fall somewhere in between those extremes and that's where the art of appraisal begins.  But testing the extremes will help get you started towards a decision.

You can test further with the following questions: Is a piece of written information unique, is it useful, is it important?  To only you?  To your immediate coworkers?  To your boss?  To the whole company?  To your clients?  To the public?  How much risk is involved in the events the record documents?  If it's a duplicate copy and is only useful and important to you, then it may be a transitory record.  If it's unique, or was created for quality control in normal business processes, or is useful to your boss and the public, or the events exposed your organization to risk, then you probably need to manage it as an official record with more controls.  Even if you only need it for a short period of time.

One risk to guard against is misusing the transitory records concept as a convenient catch-all records series for every short-term record.  It might seem like an attractive way to reduce time spent on classification, but it could also lead to a big tangled pile of unmanaged records and expose your organization to threats.  Many of your higher-value records are probably better managed under a unique records series, even for a short period of time, and not just disposed of as generic transitory records.  One quick example of this could be some form data included in case files.  In a sense these are short-term/ephemeral and can be disposed of quickly after they’re rolled up into summary reports.  However it could be very inconvenient to run legal holds or produce disposition reports on everything in a generic transitory records bucket if you need to respond to requests from an auditor or legal counsel about specific high-value short-term records.

So, to get started, ask yourself 'who created this information and why?'.  That’s the first step to determining the value of a record.  If your answer is 'A staff member created it as a convenient local copy, to have harmless casual discussion, or do a bit of professional development reading', then you may have a transitory record.  If your answer is 'Someone with responsibility for a part of a business process created it to communicate out to the organization, up to management, or out to the public', then you have an official record.  As mentioned most records will be somewhere between those two extremes, but as you ask more questions you will make a reasoned decision about values and risks.  

When in doubt ask your Records Manager or jump on the ARMA Canada Forums (link).  You may also want to check out some local events at, ARMA Vancouver or ARMA Vancouver Island.

This blog post is a contribution from Bruce Smith, Information Management Advisor at itgroove and a Certified Collabware CLM Administrator. This blog post is a contribution from Bruce Smith, Information Management Advisor at itgroove and a Certified Collabware CLM Administrator.


Tagged: Records Management

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