Records management is not easy and if done poorly or haphazardly can consume an enormous amount of time, human capital, and budget.
Records schedules help. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) defines a records schedule as “mandatory instructions for the disposition of the records.” These are documents that streamline and simplify the records management process by providing clear instructions on how to handle different types of records and identifying which personnel are responsible for what activities.
For U.S. federal agencies, records schedules are not just helpful; they’re mandatory (44 U.S.C. 3303). But how do you create a records schedule that can satisfy NARA?
1. Inventory the records.
We’ve written about this process previously. An inventory is the foundation of creating a records schedule; it is how agencies identify what records they already have and what records they are likely to create. During the inventory process, it’s important to ask some deeper questions about the value of the record to the agency. For example, is the record vital or merely helpful to operations – or does it make no difference? Note that the value of the record can come in many different forms, including financial, legal, historical, and operational.
2. Determine appropriate retention periods.
Not all records need to be preserved forever or for the same amount of time. Thus, the next step is to look at the different kinds of records identified in the inventory and determine appropriate retention periods. Some of them will be permanent records to keep forever. Others may need to be preserved for only a finite period of time. But for how long? Many factors can affect the answer to that question, but the key is ensuring the agency can access any records it needs to conduct its day-to-day operations and to meet legal obligations.
3. Create the schedule.
With the answers generated in Step #2, agencies can begin to formulate their own specific records schedule. In general, agencies can and should use the General Records Schedules (GRS) as the template or starting point of their own records schedules. The GRS “are issued by the Archivist of the United States to provide disposition authorization for records common to several or all agencies of the Federal Government.” Remember, the point of a records schedule is to make records management easier. Instead of continually assessing records individually (which is unrealistic), a records schedule should both streamline and clarify the entire process. As a result, it will reduce risks like legal noncompliance or operational problems.
4. Get approval
NARA has final approval authority over any records schedule proposed by a federal agency. Fortunately, the review and approval process is typically straightforward. As NARA itself says, “In most cases, NARA concurs in the disposition instructions agencies propose.”
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