posted 13 Sep 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 1
Case Study – Herefordshire Council
Electrifying records management
How do you raise the profile and importance of records management within a local authority? Herefordshire Council is undertaking a business-transformation programme in which records management will be key. Work has already started on changing the way in which staff view their records.
By Anthony Sawyer
Henri Volokhonsky, a Russian émigré poet in Paris, wrote a beautiful poem describing paradise in a city “over the blue sky”. Another Russian émigré, Alexei Khvostenko, set the poem to music. And Russian rock star Boris Grebenshikov, produced a cover of the song for the cult glasnost movie Assa. Grebenshikov crucially changed the lyric so that that the song was now about a city under the blue sky, immediately taking the idea of tranquillity much closer and much more accessible.
But enough about Russian poetry and songwriting. In a similar way, the Records Management Service at Herefordshire Council has been attempting to make the benefits of records management, including the use of electronic records, more appealing to the employees who are ultimately responsible for creating, storing, using and disposing of records.
It’s a surprisingly challenging assignment. While records and records management is central to public administration, many staff would rather have little to do with it or, indeed, consider it beneath them.
Our approach addresses user issues, as opposed to merely trying to enforce standards perceived as being somewhat academic. Just as Grebenshikov brought the idea of paradise a little closer to the people in the song, Herefordshire Council is aiming to make records management something that all employees can do and be responsible for.
Birth and branding
Herefordshire Council was only created in 1998, after a local government reorganisation split up the former county council of Hereford and Worcestershire.
The population of Herefordshire is about 177,000. And, as well as the city of Hereford itself, there are five market towns, set in a predominantly rural, agricultural environment.
The Records Management Service was established in 2005 and sits within the council’s Information, Technology and Customer Services section. Grouped within this department are ICT Services, Information Services (of which Records Management forms a part) and the council’s INFO Shops – Herefordshire’s one-stop shops where citizens can pay their council tax, make benefit queries and take their planning applications.
Herefordshire Council is currently embarking on a business-transformation project branded ‘Herefordshire Connects’. Following customer consultation and service-improvement planning with employees, the council identified several key areas that required attention. The survey indicated the need for:
• More ‘joined-up working’ to enable services to operate seamlessly;
• Better performance management to enable targets to be met more efficiently and for service planning to be more effective;
• Changes to the current operating model with, for example, a greater use of shared services and more services offered outside normal office hours;
• Better partner involvement and a stronger platform for the development of partnerships;
• Simpler, easier access to services for customers.
The technological and cultural transformation required to achieve these aims were grouped into three main themes:
• ‘Integrated customer services’, examining the way in which frontline services are to be delivered;
• ‘Integrated support services’, centred on back-office support, producing a single system for functions such as human resources and finance;
• ‘Corporate-performance management’, looking at the service planning and performance requirements.
An example of the way in which Herefordshire Connects will work in practice is the council’s recently refurbished INFO shop in the centre of Hereford, at the heart of the county. Visitors to the shop can get information and help from well-trained customer-service staff on council tax, benefits, planning applications, parking concessions and business rates, among many other things, as well as access to many other voluntary and public organisations.
The new shop is part of a series of improvements to the way the Council offers its services to the public. Part of these improvements will include the launch of mobile INFO shops later this year, which are intended make services more accessible to a wider range of citizens. These shops will host surgeries where experts will be able to provide advice on subjects such as benefits, building control and planning permission – a contentious issue in the UK.
Yet every communication between citizen and council will need to be adequately recorded so that subsequent correspondence is properly informed.
The role of records management
Records management will therefore be central to the success of the Herefordshire Connects initiative in many ways. For example:
• The concept of a single customer record so that citizens contacting the council can have their needs met much more effectively. Currently, they may have to contact several departments of the council to find the answers to two or three queries, explaining each time what their needs are and their previous contact with the council. In future, the council aims to deal with these queries with just one contact, saving much time and effort – especially for the customer;
• Embracing recent government initiatives, including the Electronic Social Care Record (ESCR) and One Child, One Record, both intended to improve child protection in the UK;
• Flexible working, including home working, with the ability to access records in the home or while mobile, working in the field;
• Records created by single back-office systems, such as for human resources and procurement;
• A performance-management system recording performance indicators.
Many of these ambitions will be achieved through the implementation of an electronic document and records management (EDRM) system. The Council hopes that it will help embed records management within its business processes and ensure that it is not lost among the host of new programmes that are going on at the same time.
Perceptions of records management
Records management has been recognised as a key success factor at senior level, but much work is required to change the records management culture across the organisation to one where people take automatic responsibility for their records.
A survey of staff was therefore carried out in November 2006 to find out how people managed their records and their attitudes towards records management. Some of the comments of respondents did not inspire confidence:
• “I am not a filing clerk”;
• “I am not responsible for storing records and have no idea what happens to them”;
• “I don’t have time to sort out my records”;
• “No-one uses these records except me”.
Such responses reflect some of the underlying negative perceptions of records management among staff.
As well as the expectation that simply making the records electronic by scanning pieces of paper will somehow solve all the organisation’s problems regarding finding and storing information, there was also a view that records management simply equals filing – and that would be beneath many people.
Filing is not viewed as the most productive use of time, even though it may save much time later. Indeed, there may also be a perception among many staff that their status is too important for it. Getting time to look after records is a common complaint, with records management competing with a host of other pressures in the working day.
Without a corporate system of keeping records, people tend to have a silo-based approach and display possessive behaviour where they do not see the need for others to see or use the records that they have created or stored.
Why do people hold such perceptions? Where people lack knowledge or understanding, they tend to ‘fill in the gaps’. The challenge for the Records Management Service is to convince staff that records management is critical to their role and to re-educate them on how to manage records to ensure that it is approached in the most efficient, accessible, painless and cost-effective way.
And without, at the same time, cutting corners on compliance and preservation. That is critical. This is not to say that records management is necessarily less time-consuming than people think, but it is certainly more valuable.
Queries that come from employees to the Records Management Service range from searches for records that seem to have gone missing, to advice on how long to keep certain records for and which records come under the Data Protection Act. It is important to listen to users, as by giving them exactly what they need (an overview of where records are held, retention periods, access security and so on) means that they are much more likely to respond when asked to apply greater discipline in managing records.
Changing the way people view records
Herefordshire Connects is very much about people and managing change – indeed, more so, in many ways, than it is about pure technology.
In the short-term, the Records Management Service has begun to engage with employees within the Council through the use and promotion of a centralised store for paper records, and by writing policies and procedures built upon business purposes (as opposed to, say, formats of records).
Process mapping and record surveys are carried out to inform a corporate-classification scheme. Retention and disposal schedules have a corporate structure, while remaining user-friendly and geared to individual sections. This means that employees in an office can immediately see what to do with their records, as opposed to trying to match what records they keep to a lengthy generic list.
The approach has already had the benefits of freeing up space in offices, improving efficiency in file retrieval and has begun to change the culture on managing records. Furthermore, the records survey – which was carried out by interviewing staff within each different section of the council – uncovered lots of valuable information for the organisation and posed many good questions:
• Which business processes are documented – and which aren’t?aren’t?
• What are the vital records without which the section could potentially suffer financial or reputational harm as a result of their loss?
• What current procedures and naming conventions for files and filing are being used?
• What formats are records stored in?
• Who owns the records and with whom are they shared?
The information gleaned from the record surveys and used in the retention schedules has been of immediate use to a number of interested parties in the Council, including the Freedom of Information compliance officer, the Emergency Planning section for listing the records that need to be salvaged in the event of a disaster, the Information Security section, any section wishing to achieve a quality standard, any section involved with accommodation moves and the Modern Records Unit, which provides a centralised storage service.
In view of the change in culture required, the Records Management Service has worked to ensure that the service is trustworthy and reliable.
The staff of the Modern Records Unit, for example, were trained in customer-service provision alongside colleagues in the INFO Shops, to ensure that users are responded to quickly and effectively. A survey of the users of the Modern Records Unit in 2006 showed that 94 per cent of users had found the staff of the facility to have been helpful.
Training in records management has been pragmatic. Something like a file plan is a very abstract concept for most people. When discussing the benefits of a business-function approach over an organisational hierarchy for a file plan, for example, it has worked much better to show a slide of a photograph from the archives of a workhouse and to then ask which department workhouses came under in Victorian times, than to list the actual benefits themselves.
A photograph of a hall full of wet documents hung up to dry, or one of boxes kept in cellars that have turned an unsightly colour in the damp – more common occurrences than non-records managers can imagine – also speaks volumes and opens people’s eyes to the importance of the subject.
Presentations on records management at meetings are also deliberately kept short and to the point and, where appropriate, stories are used to illustrate points being made. That’s where Volokhonsky’s poem comes in.
Like many parts of the UK, Herefordshire has recently experienced a large influx of migrant workers from Eastern Europe, so such anecdotes help catch initial interest – staff are interested to find out more about the different cultures around them. This methodology helps make records management that bit more memorable and, perhaps, helps it to stand out amid the other meetings attended by individuals that day.
The important message we hope to communicate to staff is that spending time managing records is beneficial, that sharing records is not as bad as it may seem and that without records management, electronic records will be just as hard to find as paper records.
As well as the quick wins, the Records Management Service is putting in place longer-term plans: the classification scheme needs to be developed and more employees involved with finalising it into a workable file-plan; an electronic document and records management system needs to be implemented; and, more process mapping needs to be done.
Fundamental to all this is a comprehensive records-management strategy, because if people know the scope of what is being done and are involved in the planning, they are more likely to sign up to it and carry out the work needed. In this way, records management will play a full part in the overall success of the Herefordshire Connects programme.
Anthony Sawyer is a senior archivist in the Records Management Service at Herefordshire Council. He can be contacted by e-mailing, email@example.com.
Herefordshire Connects’ records management vision
“To provide excellent records-management systems that will efficiently store and retrieve records, minimise storage requirements and improve access times. This will improve customer service, reduce costs and reduce the risks (including legal challenge) associated with the current systems.”
About Herefordshire Connects
Herefordshire Connects is a programme to provide every citizen with improved access to services at a time and location convenient to them. The aim is to give citizens a single point of contact, with a member of staff who is trained and empowered to respond effectively to their request across the full range of council services. The project is intended to enable closer working between service areas, with a focus on service delivery and development. The need to drive improvements in service quality is well understood.
However, the Council also has an equal need to deliver these improved services in a more efficient and cost effective manner. Herefordshire Connects has the twin objectives of not only driving service-quality improvement, but also doing so in a more cost-efficient manner.
The Modern Records Unit
The Modern Records Unit is part of the council’s Records Management Service. The unit has provided centralised storage for council records since 2000, with retrieval of records by authorised council employees on request. The unit holds more than 90,000 files from all departments of Herefordshire Council.
The Modern Records Unit is run by two officers, who are responsible for processing the records transferred to the Unit, handling requests for files, and disposal of files once they reach the end of their retention period. The unit has held an annual user satisfaction survey since 2005 and training is provided to council departments on how to use the Unit.