Part 2 - Fundamentals of information and records management

What are records?

Records are documents in every format created and received by individuals or organisations in the course of conduct of affairs and accumulated as evidence of these activities.

Definitions of records have been constantly challenged in recent years by the emergence of new records formats and media. Change is principally the result of technological advance. Traditional records formats such as letters, minutes, memoranda and reports are being matched and outstripped in volume by spreadsheets, databases, e-mails and facsimiles. In some ways, what technology has done is to re-define traditional records formats. Really, e-mail is very similar to a letter. It is the fact that it is transmitted electronically that differentiates e-mail from letters. Now, definitions of records tend to be as non-prescriptive and all-inclusive as possible, cognisant of the fact that it is impossible to be future-proof. The FOI Act defines records as including:

  • any memorandum, book, map, plan, drawing, diagram, pictorial or graphic work or other document, any photograph, film or recording (whether of sound or images or both), and form in which data (within the meaning of the Data Protection Act, 1988) are held, any other form (including machine-readable form) or thing in which information is held or stored manually, mechanically or electronically and anything that is part or a copy, in any form, of any of the foregoing or is a combination or two or more of the foregoing.'[1]

Most outputs of work are records. Technology has spawned a new generation of records formats and media and all of those who administer records should recognise that each is as significant as the next. Thus, aural records media such as voicemail and Dictaphone tapes, and visual records such as scanned images and photographs, merit the same level of protection traditionally afforded to written records. The FOI Act permits access to many classes of University records. Staff members should be aware that where they exist, records in diverse formats are accessible. Thus, a Dictaphone tape containing instructions for a letter is as accessible as the resulting letter.

[1] Freedom of Information Act, 1997, 2, III.

What is information and records management?

Information and records management may be defined as the application of systematic policies and procedures governing the creation, distribution, maintenance, management, use and ultimate retention or disposal of records to achieve effective, economical, accountable, transparent and efficient administration.

In short, the ultimate objective of an information and records management system is to manage, in the widest sense of the word, all aspects of the administration of records.

An information and records management requirement

Information and records management is a discrete professional area. As a concept its modern roots lie in the United States of America of the 1940s where there was an explosion of records as a result of the administration of affairs relative to the Second World War, and the welfare state that emerged in the aftermath of the war. Archivists and records managers began to introduce strategies to control the administration of records. The applicability of information and records management has continued, and the requirement for rational and documented systems has grown more acute as records proliferation goes on unabated. Furthermore, it is essential that measures are in place to govern the administration of electronic records. Electronic records are those which require a machine to be accessed, for example, video, cassette tape or computer database. These are more problematic than traditional records media as this is the first generation to rely heavily on them. Best practice is continuing to evolve as records managers and archivists in different countries attempt to arrive at formulae for their best protection. This process is complicated by the fact that records managers and archivists are contending with constantly moving goalposts due to technological advance.

There is a poor tradition of information and records management in Ireland, perhaps predicated on the fact that there was no indigenous or comprehensive central government in the country until well into the twentieth century. Government is, after all, the primary and most influential organisation in any country. Information and records management has really only come to the fore in this country since the introduction of the FOI Act and the challenges it poses for organisations relative to records (see Appendix 9 - Summary of the Freedom of Information Act, 1997).

More indirect and less hastily responded to motivations for the introduction of information and records management systems are the other benefits they can confer (see benefits of information and records management?). However, these benefits should not be undermined as the implementation of good information and records management systems can exponentially enhance the transaction of business. Information and records management should never be relegated as an administrative function. Rather it is a major business process and organisational scheme that supports other major business objectives.

Moreover, the current political climate is one that demands transparency and accountability from public bodies.

  • Accountability - refers to the ability to justify actions.

  • Transparency - implies that business activities should be transacted in a manner that is open to scrutiny.

Principally, records should exist for all major business activities, and where relevant, they should be disposed of in a timely manner. Adherence to information and records management policies, guidelines, procedures and standards should help to ensure that organisations comply with the expectations placed on it. Such expectations include legislative, regulatory and audit requirements, and community expectations. It is essential that staff members recognise the significance of this aspect of information and records management. It is important to be above reproach in business dealings. The prudent management of records should provide proof of equitable business activity.

Society demands accountability and transparency and this requirement is sharpened by the possibility of investigation into the activities of the University, and other public bodies. Under the FOI Act and the Irish Universities Act, subject to the fulfilment of certain terms, relevant officials may enter the premises of the University, interview staff members and seize records. The results of such investigations may enter the public domain.

What are the benefits of records management?

Information and records management systems support and guide all aspects of the administration of records. Such control of records confers several benefits:

  • Efficiency -
    • records are better organised and located, and retrieved more quickly, thus facilitating ease of reference, eradicating staff frustration and increasing productivity.

    • policies govern all aspects of the management of records, thus negating the necessity of staff members having to make difficult decisions.

  • Consistency - the existence of documented policies means that staff members execute actions relative to records in a consistent manner.
  • Good-decision making - because staff members have ready access to all necessary records, they are able to make decisions with reference to precedent, context and eventualities.
  • Economy -
    • Information and records management systems are formulated with reference to using all resources (people, money, space, equipment and supplies etc.) as economically as possible.

    • policies ensure the creation and retention of records where they are necessary to document and support business activities. This ensures both that records are not created needlessly and continue to survive where they are necessary. The latter element means that the organisation does not have to pay for the re-creation of records.

  • Legal protection -
    • where stringent control is exercised over records, the University protects its own interests and those of stakeholders, whether they are students, employees, the wider community or individuals and organisations associated with the University.

    • careful policies facilitate compliance with applicable legislation and regulations.

    • unnecessary retention of records is obliterated. This is beneficial as considerable resources must be devoted to administering records requested under the FOI Act. Furthermore, prolonged retention of records may be legally damaging.

  • Enhanced image - improved efficiency and management enhances the image of the organisation for all stakeholders, not least employees whose work proceeds in a more orderly manner.
  • Ensures preservation of important records -
    • archives are those records which are demonstrated to possess continuing value. While not of everyday use for operational purposes, archives contribute significantly to the construction of collective memory and cultural heritage. Information and records management policies are cognisant of the long-term needs of archives, most significantly from the perspectives of accessibility and preservation.

    • vital records are those which are necessary for the legal and financial protection of the University and its stakeholders. Disaster planning and recovery planning puts in place measures to safeguard the well-being of such records.

  • Continuity -
    • good records facilitate continuity on occasions when staff members leave the employment of the organisation. In the absence of records, staff members take their knowledge with them when they leave.

    • moreover, memories fade with time. The rationale behind records creation and retention is that staff members are not forced to try to remember the specifics of long past business transactions.

Information and records management is often vaguely associated with filing. It is recognised that it represents an unglamorous and time-consuming activity. Because of this, many organisations are guilty of delaying the implementation of tactics to control records. Moreover, there is an air of the invisible to records: for the most part, problems are evident only to those staff members who work closely with them, and the depth and seriousness of shortcomings is often concealed, even from management level staff members who may participate in the management of records in a limited way.

However, organisations only achieve seamless standards of work when there are comprehensive information and records management systems in place. Information and records management systems are often considered luxury items to be installed only when more urgent work has been completed. To delay implementation until other work has been completed would be to never put information and records management systems in place.

Objectives of information and records management

The University is a public organisation and receives a substantial proportion of its funding from public monies. Given this, fulfilment of the principles of accountability and transparency is particularly important.

It is evident that records provide key evidence of the activities and functions of organisations. In order that the achievement of accountability and transparency is feasible, information and records management, and more specifically, record-keeping, should satisfy the following criteria:

  • Comprehensive - document the complete range of the functions, activities and transactions carried out by the organisation.

  • Complete - present adequate information about all business activities.

  • Compliant - adhere to record-keeping requirements based on the regulatory and legislative environment in which the organisation operates, and comply with internal policies on record-keeping.

  • Accurate - reflect in an accurate manner those business activities that are documented.

  • Authentic - enable the provision of proof that they are what they purport to be.

  • Inviolate - securely maintained to prevent unauthorised or accidental access, alteration, damage or removal.

Characteristics of records

Records have specific characteristics that set them apart from other types of information (published or non-record). Records must be:

  • Organic - records are a natural output of business. For the most part, records are created as a matter of course. For example, an incoming letter or e-mail usually engenders a response. A discrepancy is business that is transacted verbally during meetings or telephone calls. Strategies must be put in place to ensure the creation of records in this area.

  • Fixed - records are presented in a static format. The act of recording 'sets' the information on a medium, for example, a letter is written on paper or instructions for a letter are captured on a Dictaphone tape. This indicates that records must not be altered after creation.

  • Contextual - records are created and received with reference to business activities. Therefore, there must be a direct and identifiable link between records and business. Moreover, related papers should be kept together, for instance, in files.

  • Official - records are created and received to support business activities and have an official status. The converse is records that are personal and have no connection with work-related matters.

  • Unique - any group of records, with its interrelationships, and related as it is to specific business processes, is unique. This indicates that it is unlikely that two business transactions will result in the production of the same interconnected records.

Components of records

The interaction of three components is necessary to comprise a record. If any of these components is missing, it is not a record that is present, but mere information. These components are:

  • Content - this refers to the body of the record, that is, the information or text it contains.

  • Structure - this refers to the layout and appearance of the record. This may be visible, for example, the standardised layout of a formal letter on a piece of paper. In the case of electronic records, the structure may be 'virtual,' that is, dispersed on a computer hard drive and only formed into an identifiable record when a file is opened.

  • Context - records derive their meaning from their relationships with each other and business transactions. Thus, to understand a given issue users should have access to all other relevant records. This is the primary rationale for keeping files, that is, placing related records in physical proximity to each other.

For instance, if a business letter was to be considered a record it should:

  • Contain information or subject matter that allows it to be set apart and distinguished from other documents and,

  • Have the appearance associated with a letter format, for example, date of creation, sender name and address, recipient name and address, salutation, subject line, signature etc and,

  • It should be directly connected to a business activity.

The concept of evidence

Evidence is defined as information that tends to prove a fact. The concept of evidence is significant and closely related to context. Moreover, in terms of information and records management, evidence is not limited to the legal sense of the term.

To return to the idea that evidence tends to prove a fact: this suggests that to fulfil an evidential requirement, records must prove that a business transaction occurred, as well as when, how, where and why it occurred, and who was involved.

The overwhelming consequence of this is that records must be created and managed in a manner that achieves these criteria. The product of this requirement is record-keeping systems. Record-keeping is the activity of making and maintaining records and reliable evidence of business transactions.

Records capture

Records capture refers to the process of ensuring that records are created, captured and registered in a record-keeping system.

In the first instance, organisations must strive to create records that document all business activities in an adequate manner. They may then be captured in a record-keeping system. As enumerated above this is essential for fulfilment of the principles of accountability and transparency. Incomplete records capture is problematic as it may be construed that the organisation is striving to cover up illegitimate business activity. Notwithstanding this, various factors have militated against the achievement of complete records capture:

  • Because of a desire to increase productivity and diminish bureaucracy, some employees may not take the time to create and capture complete and accurate records in a record-keeping system. The rationale behind retaining records is that individuals should not have to rely on their memories and that decisions can be taken with reference to all pertinent information. For these reasons, employees should seek to retain records that merit capture in a record-keeping system.

  • Some business transactions do not, in themselves, result in the creation of records. If there is to be evidence of such transactions, deliberate strategies for their creation must be invoked. An important instance of this is verbal exchange of information. Therefore, meetings must be minuted, and records kept of major business transactions completed during telephone and conference calls. (Incidentally, records stored on voicemail systems and Dictaphone tapes are usually subsumed into and superseded by other records). It is the express responsibility of individual staff members involved in the transaction of business to create records. It is always evident where incomplete records capture occurs. Obvious manifestations on paper files are references in documents to earlier records which are not present, or allusions to meetings of which there is no record.

What records must be captured?

The observations made above necessitate comment on what records should be created and captured in a record-keeping system. Especial attention is drawn to records creation where business activities do not naturally result in the creation of records. Records should be created and captured in a record-keeping system where they:

  • Constitute formal communications between staff members of an office or the wider University, and external organisations or individuals.

  • Relate to changes in policy.

  • Constitute precedent.

  • Contain recommendations or advice in relation to a significant business activity.

  • Support programmes or business functions transacted by an office.

  • Authorise actions.

A file classification scheme (see File classification scheme) outlines the major business functions and subject areas in which an office generates and administers records. Staff members should ensure that records are created to document these areas, and enter the record-keeping system. Moreover, the advice tendered in Part 11 of this manual, Records Disposition, should be consulted. It details which records need not be captured in a record-keeping system. For example, personal records or those which are only of ephemeral or facilitative importance need not be captured.

Specific strategies have been drawn up for the creation and capture of records that result from verbal transaction of business. These measures should be carefully implemented.

What is the records life-cycle?

The records life-cycle is a model describing the various stages through which records pass during their existence. A parallel would be the stages of youth, middle age and old age that compose the human condition. Similarly, the records life-cycle comprises three stages, during which time records are defined according to their use by administration:

  • Active - period when records are of immediate administrative, legal and fiscal value. They are used on a frequent basis and to permit easy access are located in office accommodation. Usually, records are active for a period no longer than two years after creation.

  • Semi-active - time at which records have ongoing value but are not referred to on an everyday basis. Financial records, for example, may have to be retained for a set period for audit requirements. For the sake of economy, and to create space for more significant records, semi-active records are often stored in a records centre or other intermediate storage.

  • Inactive - by this time, records are of no further use. They may be destroyed or should they have continuing value be retained as archives on a permanent basis. The archival phase is distinct from the life-cycle model.

In general, discrete units of the University are responsible for their records during the active and semi-active phases of the life-cycle. Responsibility for archives is vested in the University Archives.

Centralised control of records

At present, many organisations are in the process of introducing information and records management systems. Charting the history of information and records management is worthwhile in order to understand how this development has come about. In the past, administration tended to the use of registries. Commonly, a registry denoted the administrative unit of an organisation responsible for matters relative to the creation, dissemination, control, maintenance and disposition of records, that is, many of the functions associated with information and records management today. The registry system was extremely effective. Success was based on consistency of action, pragmatic, documented and careful procedures, and that one well-defined group of employees was accountable and responsible for records.

At present, information and records management systems are being implemented in order to introduce control over records at a level higher than the individual employee. Current thinking has it that in terms of large organisations, such as universities, the most appropriate manner in which to administer records is local or dispersed management. This implies that information and records management systems should be operational at the level of office or department, with colleagues working together under the aegis of a centralised system. At a higher level, policy should outline general precepts and principles to be uniformly adhered to across the organisation. Thus, while specific information and records management systems are tailored to meet the requirements of discrete units, all is informed and underpinned by common policy. In the context of the University, with the introduction of a University Records Management Policy, this approach is beginning to emerge and it is expected that it will continue to evolve.

It is contended here that the centralising tendencies of a registry system, working hand in hand with technology, can be adapted to a modern work environment and be an extremely efficient way to manage records. It is suggested that responsibility for most tasks and activities associated with the management of records be vested in a core group of employees who will support others in their interaction with records. The formation of an information and records management community in this manner fosters the creation of a consistent office-level approach to records, and a support system for staff. The creation of a support system for staff member is an urgent requirement. It is recognised that many may be unfamiliar with what information and records management entails.

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