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Strategies for Managing Social Media Records from the State Archives

For local government workers that deal with public records, the rise of digital communications has completely changed the way they do business. Today, retention isn’t simply about which papers to save and which to shred, but rather, how to effectively capture and catalog the myriad communications channels that people use every day. Nowhere is this challenge more pronounced than with social media, an incredibly powerful tool for engagement, but often a nightmare for public records officers.

Leslie Koziara Turner, an Electronic Records Management Consultant for the State Archives, is constantly grappling with these challenges, trying to find the most effective and efficient solutions for public records management. We sat down with Leslie to get her take on social media and some of the strategies local governments can use to harness and manage its world of public records.

Over the past few years we’ve seen social media rise into a dominant part of the communications environment. How has that affected the art of records management?

LKT: According to WAC 434-662, you are required to keep electronic records in an electronic format, but also to ensure sufficient metadata is retained to prove the integrity and authenticity of that electronic record.  So, getting an authentic “point in time” capture with some social media sites, like Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, and other dynamic sites, is just difficult due to how it is structured and used.

For example, Facebook pages can go on and on, with contributions from many other parties and even different formats incorporated in too – posts, videos, photographs, notes, timelines and so on, and then you have levels of contact (friends, fans) and an ever changing landscape. The boundary lines between a record worthy of retention or not worthy of retention are fluid and harder to define.  

The same thing applies to other dynamic sites that encourage participation and engagement – it’s more difficult to draw that boundary line because some tend to be continuous in nature.  It’s also hosted out there on the internet too and Facebook and all those media sites can do pretty much whatever they want with your content, it’s not contained to the agency server or network drive.  

What has this meant for local government PROs that are charged with retaining and managing these records?

LKT: It’s a definite challenge to try and figure out the best practices that will suffice for any particular agency.  While it’s quite common to simply back everything up and save everything – the same problems that have ensued in keeping all emails apply equally to keeping all your social media.  

Our office would just like agencies to consider all the aspects of any public records the agency generates, and consider both retention and disclosure requirements, then make choices with a plan to manage it all. Make sure it’s a sound business need or requirement and be selective, compare the benefits against risk and cost.  Social media was invented by a college kid to socialize with his friends, and it’s not called “business media” for a reason, and we’re in the business of government. While it’s nice to be liked and it is absolutely important to communicate and have relationships with the public, how does social media support your mission critical activities? The dragon lady in me just wants agencies to take a step back and apply a common sense approach.  Do you really need to have a presence in Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tumblr, LinkedIn AND whatever the latest social media trend is? Do you know how to manage those before you go there and click “I Agree”?  Has anyone read the terms of service agreements?

Many agencies have turned to social media archiving software, such as ArchiveSocial or SocialSafe, as a way of capturing these records, but you’ve been somewhat critical of this method. Why?

LKT: Many agencies have valiantly tried to do something, and we applaud their efforts. This isn’t easy! A number of these systems market their product as “meeting compliance”, but the reality is that what they provide is just another “storage shed” and agencies are once again taking the “keeping it all” approach without considering any real management attributes such as managing retention requirements, offering a means of disposition, audit trails, or ability to place litigation holds or manage those either.  Similar to email archiving systems, social media archiving systems perpetuate the silo situation and tend to encourage more digital hoarding, which is turning out to be a problem of its own and costs a whole lot more than folks think it does.  It can be better than nothing, however, again, we have always encouraged agencies to consider an overall asset management strategy and to avoid the “let’s keep it all” approach for any of their records.

Can you elaborate on an overall asset management strategy? What are some of the key elements of that?

LKT: We believe it is time that agencies start re-thinking and taking a different approach to gain control and governance over their records and information. Records and information are vital asset to an organization, and deserve better focus and attention to the effective management of those assets.

We are encouraging a “back to the future” approach.  Remember central file rooms?  All nicely organized and labeled, maybe even colored-coded.  Everyone knew where to find and access or retrieve their files, and if it was a large enough agency you had a resident “dragon lady” or file clerk that would put it away, keep it nice and organized (sometimes behind locked doors – now that’s security!  No hackers there!) and they’d even deliver it to you upon request.  And they did the housekeeping and cleaned out the file room when it got full. 

Agencies need to bring back that level of care and the controlled environments for records and information of all kinds, and bring back the core processes from the days of the central files and structures.  Develop a strategy and plan for managing information from the point of creation and it becomes a part of holistic business processes and workflow and not as an afterthought or the “oh by the way” after the fact approach.

What would something like this look like from a practical standpoint?

LKT: In a perfect world, everyone would have the systematic processes necessary to manage records and information and manage the business of government.  Be it a manual “system” or an Enterprise Content Management (ECM) system that manages it all together and automates many of the management functions - you just need to implement a system.

Be aware that any decisions about your technology have a direct impact on your public records.  Since we live and breathe by our technology today, it’s vital that we think of the records aspect as part of the planning process, and then look for the appropriate tools and make the appropriate decisions and choices.  Right now it’s more the other way around – get the cool software and then figure it out later.

For example, each of an agencies business units should proactively think about these questions:

  • What does that user’s day and processes/flow look like? 
  • What kind of business needs do they have?
  • What kind of requirements or regulations does that business unit need to meet?
  • How long do they need to keep their records? 
  • Does the unit get frequent public records requests for a particular record? 
  • Can you make any of those records immediately available to the public and enable more “self-service”? 
  • Do any of the records require redaction?  Can you work with that unit and identify what those are and prepare them in advance for any possible disclosure requests? 

Knowing ahead of time what all this looks like and planning your strategies around capture, access, retrieval, and meeting all requirements for the business unit (including the records requirements) is just a more effective and efficient approach.   

ECM systems can really help with this. They are software applications that help you automate many of the systematic processes, including workflow, and replicate the “central files” approach through technology. Many provide all sorts of other functions such as public disclosure and discovery processes, litigation holds, retention and defensible dispositions and many support mobility with mobile apps, workflow design and flow, reporting, dashboards, and some even support web and social media content too – hence the name “enterprise content management” – manages all content across the enterprise, or “agency wide”.

The better ECM systems are built from the ground up to enable users to do their job in a more effective and efficient manner (saving time and money) and come complete with all the functions of the traditional “dragon lady” – only she’s completely behind the scenes and you don’t have to bring her chocolate.   I take that back, whomever is the designated dragon lady or gentleman in your organization should always have access to chocolate.

You guys are currently using an ECM system for your own records, can you tell us a bit about that?

LKT: We’ve been using it for a while in a limited capacity, and it just makes my little “dragon lady” heart go pitter-patter. While not a magic bullet, these systems really do provide a real solution to many of the issues surrounding public records. Our use of one of these ECM systems has been what spurred or lit the fire for the statewide IG/ECM Initiative.

Over at the State Archives Office, we have been part of a multi-agency and multi-discipline team (records, business users, IT, legal, risk, security are all represented) that has finalized and selected the successful bidders for an ECM system. Because this is a widespread issue, and so far very, very few agencies have implemented ECM systems at an enterprise level, it was important we explored solutions that can benefit everyone.  Design review is underway, and once that’s done (hopefully mid-June) we can get master contract negotiations underway.  There will be multiple awards, and we are pushing for completion by this summer.

How can local governments learn from your experiences?

LKT: We are already working on some records and ECM implementation training. We’ve got a website for Information Governance/ECM in development and this summer expect to see “ECM Boot Camps”.  Once the contracts are completed, we are planning vendor fairs so that agencies can do some comparing and “kick some tires and look under the hood” of these systems to make a choice that’s right for them and be confident that these systems meet all the necessary requirements without the agencies having to develop their own RFP and go through procurement themselves.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Josh Mahar

Josh served as a Communications and Outreach Coordinator for MRSC and wrote about social media, government performance, and other local government topics. He no longer works for MRSC.