As we have seen, records represent our best, and often our only, link with the past – whether that be to satisfy our historical curiosity or to prove the legitimacy of our actions. Knowing what a record said at a particular point in time and being able to demonstrate how its content has evolved is key to preserving this link between the record and the process or event it describes.
Why is this important?
As well as acting as evidence of the transactions we undertake, many records actually define the boundaries within which these transactions must occur and dictate the way in which they are carried out. For example, the procurement policy which determines how a service or product must be acquired or the research ethics guidelines which provide the guiding principles to which a project must abide.
Important decisions are taken against the contents of a these records as they exist at the time. It is therefore vital that it is possible to pin-point exactly what the record said at any given point in time in order to re-create these conditions and verify the validity of the decisions made.
It may also prove necessary to be able to demonstrate exactly who made what changes and when. This could be in order to provide proof of who was involved in a process and evidence of their authority to do so or simply to enable the author of a particular version of a record to be identified and contacted to provide clarification over a point of detail.
The audit trail can also help show how ideas developed over time and in response to specific events. All of which can be valuable from a ‘lessons learnt’ perspective.
How to retain the audit trail
It is impossible to maintain and recreate a record’s audit trail without effective version control using some or all of the measures outlined in the previous section.
Careful thought should be given as to whether it is appropriate to retain previous drafts of a record once the final version has been declared. Doing so will obviously provide a fuller history of the development of the record which may be useful. However, it will also add significantly to the overall volume of information being held by the institution and may increase the risk of inaccurate information being inadvertently retained and bought back into circulation.
Once declared as a record it should only be deleted in accordance with your retention management policy, even if superseded by more recent versions.
Ensure you consider the most appropriate format for maintaining records. Some media may be excellent for allowing easy drafting and editing of content but this transience can make it difficult or impossible to accurately ‘roll back’ the content to a specific date or version.
If you are going to use your website or intranet to store and publish the only copy of records such as your prospectus or operating procedures, ensure your content management system does retain a full date-stamped audit trail of changes made. Alternatively, you may need to introduce manual measures such as ensuring that a separate ‘snap-shot’ of the content is taken and preserved as the formal record of the content at any given time.