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The Importance of Documentation in Risk Management

There is an old saying, “The job’s not done until the paperwork is done.” How true.

My prior blogs have provided an overview of risk management as well as risk management strategies. This blog will explore the importance of documentation as it relates to risk management. I will share two real-life examples of when the lack of documentation caused problems for one city, and when thorough, ongoing documentation helped another.

A “Tale of Two Cities”

City 1 experienced a sewer back-up that flooded the living quarters of a private home. This resulted in the home needing to be vacated by the resident, who was then forced to live in a motel for nearly a month. When the claim for damages to the home was submitted, a request was made to the city for documentation of their sewer inspections and maintenance. The city’s public works staff responded by noting that sewer lines were periodically inspected but could not produce written records of any inspections. The total cost to the city’s risk pool exceeded $100,000.

City 2 also experienced a sewer back-up, which caused raw sewage to back-up into a restaurant. Because the back-up happened in the sewer main under the street, city staff thought that the city was liable for the damages, and the city contacted their risk pool to report the back-up before a claim was even submitted. The city’s risk pool asked for documentation of sewer inspections.

The area where the back-up had occurred was a known low spot in the main. Less than two weeks prior to the back-up, City 2’s public works staff had inspected the main on both sides of the low point, noting that liquid was running free and clear. Additionally, the city had documentation going back several years of all their sewer system inspections and maintenance activities. The documentation proved that the city was being a responsible utility owner and, consequently, was not liable for the back-up and damages to the restaurant. Instead, it was later established that restaurant employees had caused the back-up by dumping grease down the drain. Without this documentation however, City 2 would have been liable.

Benefits of Documentation

For local governments, there are several benefits to documenting the many daily activities conducted by staff, not just sewer system operations. These benefits include:

  • Records what your people do every day,
  • Builds data to be used for scheduling future work,
  • Justifies current budget expenditures,
  • Adjusts capitol replacement plans,
  • Establishes future budgetary and staffing needs,
  • Provides information for new employees when current employees retire or leave, and
  • Reduces potential liability for the agency, thus saving costs.

What to Document

Local government documentation should include all inspections and maintenance activities, as well as repairs conducted, and replacements made. While the list of what should be documented will vary by entity type, there are some common activities that should be documented across all municipalities, whether you are in county government, school district, fire district, or other special purpose district. This includes:

  • Vehicle use,
  • Building and property use,
  • Use of portable equipment and tools,
  • Use of personnel protective equipment, and
  • Staff training conducted, including subject, attendance, date, and length of the training.

In addition to the “all governmental agency” list above, here are some other areas that need documentation for specific types of governmental organizations.

Municipalities/County Governments

  • Utilities systems, such as sewers, storm water, drinking water, electric, and waste management.
  • Sidewalks/trails including ADA accessibility, trip and fall hazards, and condition.
  • Parks/recreation facilities, playground equipment, tree health, trip/fall hazards, lighting, restrooms, security cameras, fencing, sports fields, and swimming pools/splash parks (including water quality).
  • Street condition (use your pavement condition report).
  • Traffic control/street name signs for visibility, retro-reflectivity, physical condition, and proper supports. Follow the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, as amended by the State of Washington, for retro-reflectivity and placement, traffic signals, and temporary construction signage.
  • Right-of-ways for maintenance, encroachment, and obstructions.
  • Street lights.
  • Transit operations.


  • Playgrounds / gymnasiums / swimming pools / athletic facilities.
  • Sidewalks / trails including ADA accessibility, trip and fall hazards, condition. Roadways on school property.
  • Building safety systems / lockdown / active assailant training.
  • Bus system operations.
  • Food service.
  • Infectious disease controls.

Fire Districts

  • Compressed air breathing systems and air quality tests.
  • Hose and ladder testing.
  • Decontamination of protective clothing.
  • Water tender fill locations.

Special Districts

  • Chemical handling.
  • Utilities systems, such as sewers, storm water, drinking water, electric, and waste management operated by the district.
  • Recreational facilities.

How to Document

Documentation can be as simple as a spiral notebook with hand-written entries to digital documentation using commercially available software systems. The important facts to include are:

  • Date,
  • Location, 
  • What was wrong, 
  • What was done (This should be more specific than “inspected the park”), and
  • Individual(s) doing the work.

The entry should provide enough detail so that someone who didn’t do the original work will have a full understanding of what was done. Photos are also beneficial and can provide additional detail that the written word might not convey.


Documentation offers many benefits to you as a worker and to your agency, the least of which is that ongoing and thorough documentation can help reduce an agency’s liability when a claim occurs.

Question? Comments

If you have questions about this topic or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have questions or comments about this blog post, please email the MRSC Insight Editors.

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.

Photo of Roger Neal

About Roger Neal

Roger Neal is a Town of Steilacoom Councilmember and is retired from AWC, where he served as Program Manager for the Risk Management Service Agency, providing risk management solutions for over 100 Washington municipalities. He is also the former President of the Washington PRIMA Chapter, the public sector risk management professional society.

Roger has over 25 years of experience providing risk management solutions for both public sector agencies and the private sector, and he is regular speaker on the topic of Public Sector Risk Management.

Roger is writing as a guest author. The views expressed in guest columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.