Implementing digital disposal – summary of digital implementers workshop May 13, 2015

3874706978_902597beb1_zLast week we had our regular digital implementers group meeting. This session’s topic was digital disposal. In advance of the meeting, we conducted a mini-survey of the group to get a sense of their progress and capacity was in this area. The results of this were interesting because, while it was a limited sample, there is a diverse group of organisations represented on the group. We previously conducted a broader survey on digital disposal a few years ago, so it was interesting to see how those responses measured up to today. As always, the group was very interactive, and we had two people presenting case studies.

Who is responsible for digital disposal

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many organisations have accumulated a lot of digital information which is not sufficiently organised, and which they are not able to assign a value or specific retention period to. Our experience investigating this issue for a number of years indicates that if processes to assign value and/or categorise digital records and information are not performed on a business-as-usual basis, then they will not be performed at all.

One particular area of interest was determining who was actually responsible for applying authorised retention periods to the records and information. In the mini-survey, 57% said that application of authorised retention periods to digital records was mainly responsibility of records/information management specialists, with 19% saying it was a shared responsibility, 14% relying mainly on automated processes, and 5% relying mainly on individual staff. Overall, 90% had applied authorised retention periods at least partially in their EDRMS/ECM systems, but only 38% had applied authorised retention periods to at least some of their other digital systems.

The first presentation, from a public office, talked about a project to apply disposal decisions as business-as-usual. This presentation really illustrated some of the questions around of who was responsible for digital disposal.

This project involved establishment of additional controls in some areas, and more permissive rules in others. In particular, the organisation had revised its business classification to more closely match the way in which the business units worked, while increasing monitoring and review of  the way business units captured and managed digital records to confirm those classifications were correct.

The case study reinforced the group’s survey responses, in which the majority said the information/records management staff were responsible for applying disposal decisions. Some group members thought that the approach required too many central resources, and that they relied on developing user-intuitive categories to implement classification in their organisations. Others took the perspective that this just demonstrates that managing digital records properly requires significant resources.

Disposal and system design

Government organisations have frequently told us that long-term information/records management requirements are often not sufficiently considered as part of the design and implementation of digital business systems. This was supported by the survey, with just over half saying they had not being involved in a project incorporating significant digital disposal implementation or functionality.

The second case study was from the digital archives team. Terry Jolliffe gave an overview of the how the team is working now it has entered a business as usual phase.

He talked about a number of completed projects and a number which were still underway, covering a range of digital record types, source systems, and business activities. Terry noted that business systems in particular were complex to migrate, and noted that planning for the eventual archival transfer at system design stage, where the system manages archival value records, would have been very helpful.

Disposal and organisational strategy

In terms of overall authorised digital disposal conducted, about half had conducted disposal. This was conducted in circumstances including system migration and decommissioning, machinery of government changes, and on a routine, business-as-usual basis. In discussion, a number of members said that they had classified and applied approved retention periods to digital information, but they had not yet retained it for the required retention period. A significant majority had identified archival value digital information created and held, but only a third had given consideration to long term management of digital archives.

We also asked about organisations’ attitudes to indefinite retention of digital information. While member’s qualitative responses to the survey indicated that they had a strong understanding of the challenges and risks, they also indicated that the notion that “storage is cheap” mindset is strong. This means that many organisations are at risk of accumulating large amounts of information for which:

  • its value has not been assessed
  • it is difficult to be related to the business processes which it way generated
  • its risk profile has not been analysed

Research on digital privacy breaches indicates that many have been exacerbated by the fact that private information was either being retained longer than it should have, or because the internal organisation, management structure and controls for the information were insufficient. The members agreed that being able to accountably dispose of information was a key incentive to go the effort of organising digital information. Other organisations have said that the existence of systems which perpetually retain information has been a major disincentive to organise and control that information, with many assuming that search technologies will solve their problems in this area.

Development of guidance and future work

Digital disposal is an area which has been identified for further guidance development. State Records will be working on this in the second half of 2015, and we would welcome contact about further case studies and insights from public offices.

Photo: U.S. National Archives

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