Lessons Learned:
Mapping an Approach for Successful Content Management

Historically speaking, records management (RM) is something that few wanted to address. Typical attitudes toward it were, “I’m just too busy to deal with it” or “I just save everything.”With mindsets like those, it is little wonder that RM can be a challenge for organizations to coordinate and enforce.

The County of San Diego was no different. Its RM program practices were dated. Staff had limited communication with departments or management and did not use current technology.

Rich Grudman

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Some information about the RM program was being distributed but not in a consistent manner, and the limited RM information that was getting out was not always going to the correct people. Additionally, very few county departments were aware of the risks associated with not managing records properly.

Recently, the County of San Diego RM underwent a major overhaul. The county combined its electronic document management (EDM) program with the RM program when it realized they had similar goals. The joint programs are now collectively referred to as the enterprise content management (ECM) program. This program directly affects all county departments and indirectly affects all county employees and the public.

With the merger of these programs, executive support, revised administrative policies, new resources, and a proactive attitude, the county now has a clear path for managing electronic files and paper. Additionally,newawareness of the importance of managing records as part of daily operations has been drastically raised. This awareness will reduce the potentially large costs of disaster recovery, litigation, and staff time and very likely will save the county money. The county is now in the forefront of local governments for proper content and RM practices. The approach it took and the lessons learned from the county’s experience provide helpful guidance for other organizations working toward the same goals.

A Litany of Problems

Prior to the transformation, a result of outdated practices and ineffective communication, the county faced several problems. Existing records staffs had retired or were close to retirement, with no succession plan or knowledge transfer plan in place. Worse, there were limited communication tools available to county departments; those that did exist badly needed updating.

A significant challenge was that only 24 percent of county departments had approved records retention schedules in place. The few departments that did have retention schedules did not fully understand how to use them – much less comply with them. Retention schedules existed, but most were not sure why, so compliance with the schedules was brushed aside. In addition, most departments (both with and without a retention schedule) were unsure as to what was actually a “record.” Terms like “record,” “official record,” “public record,” and “document” were commonly used interchangeably; there was no enterprise understanding of what the terms implied.

It is no wonder that the county found itself with nearly 175,000 boxes stored at an offsite storage facility at a cost of almost $400,000 per year. Departments commonly sent to storage boxes whose contents were either unknown or included unnecessary paperwork that was saved “just in case.” Of those, almost 100,000 boxes had no destruction date, and about 18,000 boxes were stored well past their destruction date. The boxes labeled with destruction dates were, for the most part, meaningless. It was common practice to assign 50, 75, or 100 years as the required retention – again, just in case.

Even more boxes in unknown quantities with even more unknown content were being stored onsite. Little attention was paid to a storage location for recovery of records in the event of a disaster. In addition, there was no consistent tracking method to show where onsite records were stored. For this purpose, departments used Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, Word documents, or even employees’ memories.

A commonly held perception was that it was cheaper to store boxes forever than to destroy them in a timely manner. The county was, for the most part, unaware of the expensive risks it took by not dealing with this growing problem.

Lastly, the county had an EDM system (EDMS), but few departments had made the connection about using it to manage their records. Most departments equated RM with physical records only. EDMS was seen as a tool to automate processes but not necessarily as a means to manage records. The programs had separate managers, funding, and direction, and they were not really working together.

In addition, because electronic record storage was not a visible need, many county technology systems were not certified as “trusted systems,” which California Government Code 12168.7 defines as “a combination of techniques, policies, and procedures for which there is no plausible scenario in which a document retrieved from or reproduced by the system could differ substantially from the document that is originally stored.” Therefore, records could not be destroyed if they were scanned into the system as replacements for paper.

Then Came the Change

The executive team at the County of San Diego came to realize that the county faced significant risks by not paying attention to these issues. They also realized that the objectives of the RM and EDM programs were similar and, furthermore, that the EDMS was a robust resource that could be used by departments to achieve the county’s desired document and RM goals while working toward reducing the amount of paper stored county-wide. The culmination of this realization was to hire a program administrator to manage both the RM and EDM programs under the collective heading of the ECM program.

ECM Program Responsibilities

The program acts primarily as an advisor to all 50 county departments (about 18,000 employees). The ECM program:

  • Guides departments on how to manage content (paper or electronic), including official records and documents
  • Maintains enterprise-wide records policies and the global records retention policy
  • Assists county departments with development of departmental records retention policies
  • Promotes use of the EDM software as the county-wide standard software for ECM and advises departments on how it can help them
  • Manages contracts for third-party related vendors: offsite storage, scanning, and EDM software contracts
  • Manages the county vault (a climate controlled building where permanent county records, such as microfilm, are stored)
  • Sets county-wide performance goals for improvements

Implementing the ECM Program

One of the first changes made after combining the programs and restructuring their functionality involved staffing. In addition to the new program administrator, five new staff members were hired, including a technical analyst to assist with EDM software operations and maintenance, a county records manager to manage the operational and training aspects of the records portion of the program, two records coordinators, and an office support person to help with the many administrative tasks. For the records coordinator and support staff positions, desk manuals were created. These contain all the daily, weekly, andmonthly operational tasks that need to be upheld for continuation of business.

The next major change was a rewrite of county-wide, records-related policies and standards. The main records policy includes updated definitions (including differences among documents, public records, and official records), rules for document and record management, and standards for retention policies. The policy also addresses electronic content and defines the EDM software as the county standard for content management to encourage taking advantage of economies of scale. Further, both RM and EDM program staff report to the same person. In addition to the main records policy, three new county administrative policies were created to address ancillary yet individual issues: e-mail and verbal communications, county data/information protection and security, and the California Public Records Act.

One of the main objectives for reinventing the program was to adjust the mindset of both the staff in the program and those departments that receive its services. The goal was to take a broken program whose philosophy was “this program exists to enforce the policy” and make it into a proactive one with a focus on implementing positive, effective change. While this seems to be common sense, organizations often fall back to “but that’s the policy.” During renovation of the program, it was understood that a better strategy is to take the stance that compliance will come when the program leads departments and shows them why having good RM practices is not just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do. As such, a new philosophy was adopted by the program to better serve county departments.

Another issue that needed to be addressed was the use of current technology. One of the primary new technologies used to disseminate information to the county staff is a new intranet website. This website contains a wealth of records-related resources including forms, policies, references, retention schedules, records plans, templates, how-to guides, user-group agendas, minutes of meetings, and relevant articles. The website is constantly being updated with new information, and users are continually referred back to it.

Another technology area that needed attention was the EDMS itself. Because part of the overall records plan is to use this system to store records and eliminate paper, the county wanted to ensure that the system was built to certain specifications, and the county could prove that the EDMS was built to those standards. Because there is no official governing board that certifies technical systems as being built to trusted standards, the county hired a consultant to analyze the proposed system to ensure that indeed it was built and is being maintained as a trusted system.

Part of the process included validation that the system meets the guidelines outlined by AIIM in its recommended practice Analysis, Selection, and Implementation Guidelines Associated with Document Management Systems (AIIM ARP1-2007).

Communicating for Results

Even with all these improvements, the county recognized that evangelizing was not enough to get results and that it needed a way to motivate departments. The chief administrative office, which is the executive office of the county, included RM goals in all county departments’ incentive pay programs. Furthermore, all department heads and general managers have been made aware of the potential risks associated with managing their records and better understand the potential role the EDM software will have in managing their records.

The county also knew that to be successful, new communication/ educational resources would need to be made available to county departments, in addition to the program staff to provide guidance. These resources include:

A new intranet website. The website contains a wealth of records-related resources, including forms, policies, references, retention schedules, records plans, templates, how-to guides, usergroup agendas and minutes, and articles. The website is constantly updated with new information, and users are continually referred back to it.

“House call” meetings. Records program staff meet with departments to show them all the available resources and how and why to use them.

A records management work group. This is a quarterly educational forum where all departments can come to learn about county processes, best practices, and new tools and resources.

Web-based training. A new web-based training was developed on the use of the EDMS RM software module.

Timely quarterly storage reports. Offsite box storage activity reports are sent to department heads and general managers each quarter with the goal of controlling costs by reducing storage.

Tip of the month. Monthly e-mails are sent to department records coordinators and department heads containing links to “how to” guides and templates.

Training video. This interactive video was created for county staff who are not records coordinators to provide a high-level overview of the program, awareness of the county records policies and definitions, and awareness of the EDM system.

EDM guidance. The program administrator meets with departments to help them understand what the software can do and how it can help them. This guidance also assists departments in the process of implementing electronic content-related projects.

Electronic content user group. This group discusses ideas about how the EDMS software can be used and promotes cross-departmental information sharing. It is also a forum to discuss technical projects that affect the core software environment.

Yet another area that was improved was management of “the vault” – a county-operated, climate-controlled, World War II-era weapons bunker that was converted to a storage facility for permanent county records, specifically microfilm. The EDMS RM software module was implemented as the system of record as part of a business process re-engineering effort. An inventory of all 120,000 reels of microfilm was conducted to ensure accuracy about what is stored at the vault.

Showing the Pay-Off

In only about 18 months, the County of San Diego was able to show the following results, with the primary cost being
staff time:

  • Mitigation of the potentially large (unknown) costs of disaster recovery, litigation, and staff time in the event of lawsuits and public records act requests
  • Increased county awareness (throughout all levels of the organization) of risks associated with not having a RM program in place
  • An evolving, proactive ECM program with a significant number of resources available
  • County-wide reduction of boxes stored offsite and those stored beyond or without a destruction date (see Figure 1)

County-Wide Reduction of Boxes

The response from county departments has been very positive. Although fixing records issues continues to be a lot of work, the county has bought into the concept that RM is an ongoing, everyday process – not just a clean-up project. With the infrastructure built, leadership in place, and buy-in from the departments, the County of San Diego is now a recognized leader among local government agencies for its records program, having been recognized recently by the National Association of Counties for its efforts.

Rich Grudman can be contacted at rich.grudman@sdcounty.ca.gov.

From September - October 2008