The record survey contains two interlinked elements which are of importance if the benefits of a records management programme are to be realised:
- Analysis of the business processes and systems which currently create and use information in the institution.
- The audit of the records themselves
In the first case what the programme is trying to establish is the route by which information passes through a business process; who creates it, who modifies it, who needs it, and who deals with its storage and disposition. This part of the programme is best described as a process review.
If at all possible the person conducting the audit will attempt to deal with both elements in a single pass. However in some processes and some large organisations this will not be possible and the two elements will have to be conducted separately.
The most fully developed methodology is the DIRKS programme of the National Archives of Australia. This is an eight step process to improve record keeping and information management practices, and includes recommendations for the design and implementation of new systems throughout the agencies of the Australian government.
The scale of this is both larger and more elaborate than would be appropriate in most educational institutions but the experience and the practice it represents has been scaled down successfully to meet the needs of UK colleges.
What’s in a name?
The record survey is also known as an information audit, records and information survey, and in older publications may be referred to as a records census. Whatever the title, the objective is a comprehensive survey of all records created or held by the institution.
The word ‘audit’ tends to be intimidating because it is usually associated with the annual financial audit. The information audit may produce financial information, but that is not its prime purpose.
A record survey should cover all media: – paper, microfiche and those records stored in electronic formats or systems.
Objectives of the record survey
The record survey has a series of specific objectives. These can be divided into immediate, short term and long-term objectives.
An interim report on the current state of play, which is non-judgemental and allows the process owners to confirm, amend or refute your preliminary conclusions. It is an overview, whose outcomes will shape the way you go about the detail of the full survey. In many situations these will be accompanied by process maps which allow you to go back to your informants and say, ‘this is what I think happens in your area, is it correct?’
This is a vital stage for achieving willing buy-in from your colleagues. It is also an important element in a communication strategy.
- To establish the shape of the organisational structure
- To identify which business functions create which records
- To identify what these records are used for
- To identify where they are kept and by whom
- To identify how long they are kept and how long they should be kept
- To identify who needs to use them now, and who might need them in the future if the present record holder leaves the institution, or if the structure of the organisation itself changes.
- To identify legacy systems and records which might be discontinued
- To identify vital records.
- Improvement of records management systems
- Development of improved work-flow processes
- Development of retention schedules
- Development of digital preservation strategies
- Development of cost-effective records storage and retrieval facilities
- Formation of disaster recovery and business continuity strategies
- Identification of staff training requirements
- Raised profile of records management within the institution.
Where to start
The approach required for success in the audit will depend upon the size and structure of the institution. A large multi-site, multi-school university with a devolved management structure will require a different approach from a small college with a tight, centrally controlled management structure.
However in either case a single person or very small team will usually be made responsible for the task. In an ideal world, that person will be someone with the right skills and experience such as a records manager, but the smaller the institution the more likely it is that it will be a task added to an existing role such as IT Manager, data protection officer, information professional or management information officer.
Whatever the starting point, the survey needs to be pre-planned carefully. This should include:
- A clear commitment and support from senior management
- A clear list of objectives
- A communication strategy
- Collection and processing of the data gathered
- Design and completion of forms
A successful records survey is going to need co-operation and input from a wide range of staff across all parts of the institution. For this reason it is important to obtain both senior management commitment and the approval of the relevant line manager within each area to be surveyed.
Whatever the formal title of the person made responsible for conducting the audit, a number of preliminary tasks will need to be done:
- Obtain, or draw up, a plan of the institution’s existing management structure and identify the key players who can be helpful and who should be involved. Keeping this group informed of progress both formally and informally is a key element in a successful audit.
- In a large institution it may be useful to identify champions in particular schools or departments who can be brought together to discuss issues, and who can help at the gathering information stage.
- Draw up a preliminary plan, with a rough idea of timings and costs (this will certainly be modified as the audit progresses).
- Identify known storage areas for ‘old records’ but do not start with these. Always start with the current business structure and processes as it is almost certain that the majority of records in store will form part of working series and sequences that are easier to identify from current business practices than in isolation.
- Draw up a formal Project Management plan for the audit to control timings, effort and key stages. You can get more information on how to do this in the project management guide. This has the advantage of being able to give particular departments or schools both an indication of priorities and the probable date of the audit reaching their patch. It has the additional advantage of helping to avoid disruption to business at difficult times. For example, no finance department would welcome the audit during the annual financial audit. It permits timings to be negotiated, and if necessary, changed without disruption to the overall schedule.
- Identify two or three quick wins, probably in the central administration. This has two purposes:
- Political – to give a demonstration of what is possible
- Practical – to try out a do-able part of the audit as a method of testing techniques. This will show up where the methods need modification.
During the course of the survey, which may take many months, it is important to keep all stakeholders informed about, and happy with, the progress. A well-developed communication strategy, using all available methods, is vital. This should include:
- A general statement to all members of staff explaining that the record survey is to take place and why it is in the interests of everybody that it should be done properly. This should have the full support of senior management and should be short and to the point
- Regular communication beforehand with those who are acting as the local contact/champions. Initially this might involve a training session/discussions and telephone calls. Later an informal newsletter or feedback to this group as the survey progresses whether or not they are directly involved at that point in time
- Direct communication with the area, department, school or unit before the survey is scheduled to take place. After it is completed give feedback with some preliminary suggestions and conclusions
- Regular progress reports to senior management even if this is not formally required as part of the task. This is a vital element for ensuring continued support and, if need be, resolving disputes, or difficulties
- Regular general bulletins to all members of staff containing general news, wins, or fascinating facts unearthed during the audit are important in winning over the unconvinced. This can be done through existing news bulletins which most institutions issue or via the intranet. Short and snappy is the general rule.
Analysis of the returns from the information gathering stage will quickly reveal:
- Areas where the business processes are being supported adequately by record keeping
- Areas where changes will have to be made because external statutory or regulatory requirements are not being met
- Areas where records management processes are haphazard and where a regular system must be introduced
- Areas where business could be improved by simplifying a procedure
- Areas where the record, and therefore the institution, is at risk.
The range of possible uses for the data gathered via a records survey is vast and will vary according to the specific needs of the institution. These may include:
- Records retention and disposition schedule
- Vital records policy
- Disaster recovery and business continuity plans
- Interim finding aid for resource discovery purposes (ie, in response to receiving and FOI request)
- Digital preservation strategy
- Guide to access/security controls
- Training plan.