Records Disposition Authority: Roadmap for Records Retention

Do you ever wonder why some records are kept for just a couple of years, while other records are kept for decades or even forever? Do you know where to find how long different types must be maintained? Let’s discuss a document that serves as a roadmap for state and local government records retention: the Records Disposition Authority (RDA).

An RDA is designed to help state and local governments manage their records more efficiently by identifying how long specific records should be kept, when records can be destroyed, and which records should be preserved permanently.

The Code of Alabama 1975 mandates that no state, county, municipal or other public official shall cause any state or local government records to be destroyed without first obtaining approval of the State and/ or Local Government Records Commissions (Code of Alabama 1975 § 41-13-21 through 23).

Public officials include not only elected officials, but any employees whose salaries are paid in whole or in part by Alabama taxpayers. The definition references the Code of Alabama 1975 § 36-12-1, which defines the phrase “public officer or servant” as, “in addition to the ordinary public offices, departments, commissions, bureaus and boards of the state and the public officers and servants of counties and municipalities, all persons whatsoever occupying positions in state institutions.”

Public officials from state agencies must obtain approval for records destruction from the State Records Commission, while public officials from local government agencies obtain approval from the Local Government Records Commission (Code of Alabama 1975 § 41-13-21 through 23).

In practice, authorization from the Commissions is provided in the form of retention schedules, called Records Disposition Authorities (RDAs). The RDAs describe the “disposition” of records (temporary or permanent) and stipulate minimum retentions of record types (ex. routine accounting records) after which destruction is authorized to take place.

Permanent records as identified in the RDA (ex. meeting minutes, annual reports) cannot be destroyed and must be preserved in perpetuity. State agencies may transmit permanent records which are no longer regularly referenced to the Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH) for permanent preservation. Local government agencies are generally responsible for maintaining permanent records in their communities to provide greater access among citizens.

Temporary records as identified in the RDA may be destroyed once their minimum retention periods have passed. State agencies may destroy temporary records without requesting preapproval from the Alabama Department of Archives and History; however, records liaisons must submit logs of records destroyed in the previous fiscal year as part of the Annual RDA Implementation Report.

Local government agencies must request preapproval from the Alabama Department of Archives and History each time records are to be destroyed. Destruction can only proceed once an agency has received a Letter of Eligibility authorizing destruction of the records. Our next blog entry will describe the Local Government Records Destruction Notice Process in more detail.

Records management staff have worked over the past twenty years to develop approximately 175 State Agency RDAs and 15 Local Government RDAs. State agency RDAs are highly specific and describe the records produced by a single agency in significant detail. Local government agency RDAs describe “classes” of local government organizations, such as “Law Enforcement Agencies” and “Municipalities.”

The RDA serves as the foundation of a records management program that helps state and local governments comply with state records laws, meet operational goals and objectives, document financial decisions and expenditures adequately, and promote transparency in government.

If your agency does not have an RDA, you should contact us at becky.hebert@archives.alabama.gov to start this process.

 

You Don’t Need to Keep It All: Start Decluttering Your Email

To the phrase “You don’t need to keep it all,” I often receive this common response: “I would need to hire an assistant full-time just to manage my email.” While storage may be relatively cheap, think about how long it takes your search engine to find an email among twenty thousand messages. The value of information lies in its accessibility.

How do you begin to declutter your email account? Start by deleting transient emails defined by records that are not essential in documenting agency activities. We previously discussed deleting unsolicited SPAM, distributed messages such as reminders about getting your flu shot, and reference copies in “First Steps to Better Email Management.”

Another example of types of emails that require no documentation for destruction include listserv messages. Set up rules to automatically sort these messages into a separate folder. Also, unsubscribe from groups or even promotional emails that you do not need.

Other types of email easily identified for deletion without documentation include transient records such as accepted/declined meeting requests and read receipts. Even items such as meeting arrangements can be placed in the calendar with the back and forth coordination emails being deleted.

To start finding these types of messages, arrange your emails by “from” which will allow you to select groups of emails and delete them with one click of a button. By arranging your account by sender, you can identify those individuals who do not send email related to the day-to-day operation of government. Some users only send you messages such as “Are you ready for lunch?” Delete emails from these senders in batches.

Email management is not saving all email forever. Spend as little as fifteen minutes every day before or after lunch. Deleting transient emails will help you identify those messages that document your important work in government and will build your confidence as you take additional steps to declutter your account.

First Steps to Better Email Management

Many emails you receive at work are transient records and thus can be deleted. Managing those emails properly can be done in as little as fifteen minutes a day. So where do you begin? You start by deleting emails that you know can be deleted such as unsolicited SPAM or distributed messages sent to groups.

Microsoft Outlook has tools that can help you capture SPAM messages before they reach your inbox. Those messages are stored in a special SPAM or junk mail folder. SPAM messages that arrive in your inbox can be flagged to help your account identify similar future messages, so they go directly to your junk folder. You should check your SPAM folder weekly to ensure that emails created in the ordinary course of business were not misdirected. Otherwise, you can delete your entire SPAM folder weekly to reduce your email account’s clutter and make more efficient use of your account space.

Once you have deleted your SPAM messages, you can then tackle a common transient email – the distributed list email. These are emails where you have been cc’d or bcc’d as part of a larger group of recipients such as all department/agency employees. Often, such messages originate within your immediate workplace and include mass reminders such as “cake in the break room” or “flu shots available today.” Such emails distributed to (not by you) are transient non-substantive messages of short-term usefulness and often are not created as part of the normal functions/activities of your agency. Transient emails can be deleted.

Distributed meeting minutes are also considered transient records. Usually after meetings, minutes are sent to all attendees. As a recipient of these minutes, you can delete those messages because the minutes should be preserved permanently by its creator – recipients are not obligated to preserve those emails because you are merely receiving a reference copy.

Email management is NOT saving all email forever. As email will not manage itself, you must be a proactive manager as email management is your responsibility. Don’t attempt to clean up your email all at once but set aside small intervals of time. See future blogs for additional email clean-up strategies.

What about Government Email?

Can you imagine being able to conduct government business in the State of Alabama without the use of email? In general, public officials are legally obligated to create and maintain records that adequately document agency activities. These government records — including email — facilitate the efficient conduct of government programs and services; ensure effective management of government information; and provide documentation of government business. Considering this, what rules and best practices apply to email when it comes to managing and retaining government records?

Let’s define government email. The state of Alabama issues a professional e-mail account for each new employee and public official. However, Alabama law stipulates that any document is a government record when it is created by a government employee in the course of conducting public business — not just those documents created with and/or stored on government property. If an employee is engaging in government activities with his or her personal email account, those emails are government records. This is one reason that the use of official government email accounts is encouraged when conducting public business.

How long must email be maintained by government agencies? It depends. Email itself is not a record type but a format. Because records retention relies on the information in a record and not on the format, agencies cannot apply one retention to all email messages.

Government email messages must be retained and disposed of according to the Records Disposition Authority (RDA) approved by the appropriate records commission for that agency. For example, if your agency’s RDA requires grant project files to be maintained “six years after submission of the final federal financial report,” then email associated with the grant project file would have that same six-year retention. Email messages are subject to the same retention requirements as the same type of records in another format or medium. Keep in mind that the retention of email is dependent upon the content of the email, not where the email account resides.

Email records are also subject to the same legal requirements regarding access as an agency’s other government records, as established by Alabama’s open records law. Because email created in the conduct of state or local business is public record and rarely subject to restrictions, written communications should be articulated clearly and professionally, leaving banter to the break room.

Something Old, Something New: Records and Information Management Section Blog

Did you know that one of the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s (ADAH) central missions is to aid state and local governments in the management of their records? ADAH staff work with state and local agencies on records and information management and on the preservation of permanent records. We also conduct free on-site visits for assistance and training.

This blog is designed to share information pertinent to the management and preservation of government records, including such topics as records retention, professional training, disaster preparedness, electronic records, and more. From the mountains of north Alabama to the Mobile Bay, our blog will relay news from our staff who travel across the Yellowhammer State to train and assist records management liaisons. We will also report the activities of the Alabama State Records Commission and the Alabama Local Government Records Commission.

Who we are and what we do is vital to preserving government records for the benefit of current and future generations of Alabamians. Check out our weekly blog posts to find out more.