Like many people, this morning I stopped to grab my morning caffeine fix on the way to work. As usual it led to an impromptu game of ‘20 questions’…
“Is this to take away?” – Yes it is.
“Would you like an extra shot?” – Yes please.
“Would you like chocolate sprinkled on top?” – Yes I would.
“Do you have a loyalty card?” – Yes I do.
“Would you like a receipt?” – Umm… I guess so. Always useful to have a receipt, right?
The paper was thrust into my hand, and before I could read it the nice waitress was already serving up an espresso macchiato to the next customer. It was only when I got to work did I notice those immortal words:
Please keep this receipt for your records
My inner records manager perked up. Suddenly, I was getting document retention and disposition guidance from a coffee barista. As I searched my wallet though I come across another receipt, this time from the pub I frequented at the weekend:
This copy to be retained by Customer
‘Retained’? For how long? And why exactly do I need to keep this receipt for ‘my records’ – is there a legal requirement to do so? Will it provide my future biographer with a particular insight into my life?
This is why good records management is so necessary: whilst a wallet full of receipts is a mere inconvenience for me, imagine now the problems across large organisations or Government departments with people not knowing what to save, or how long to keep their stuff. Before you say it, no we can’t ‘just keep everything’ – where would you put it?
If you think about it, keeping stuff is expensive. Even the cost of retaining documents in digital form is expensive, especially when you factor in not only storage but maintenance, searching, presentation, obligations under FOI, DPA etc…
Instead of talking to people about ‘retention’, why not try a different approach? ‘Responsible disposition’ is a phrase I’ve stolen from an excellent presentation I attended recently at The National Archives. Disposal has a sort of ‘cleansing’ feeling about it – we certainly keep our filing systems lean and useful by getting rid of things when they are no longer needed. We save money, space, even electricity by doing this, so why aren’t we thinking about what records we can get rid of, rather than what to retain?
Remember, I do use the word ‘responsible’ – please don’t go round wiping the office servers on the advice of some random guy on a blog… What I mean is finding answers to the following four questions:
1. Does information have ongoing operational or administrative value to my business? The coffee receipt will help me to identify where and when I spent my money this month, but after I’ve diligently audited my online bank statements it’s more than likely I won’t refer to it ever again. Organisations rely on information to inform sound decision and policy making, so consider what information is still in use, and what has been superseded.
2. Does information have legal value to my business? As far as I know there is no legal requirement placed on me to provide evidence of my coffee purchases. Bear in mind though that there are some categories of records which are required to be kept under current UK law, so beware of the legal framework under which you operate.
3. Does information have a financial value to my business? Imagine that I had purchased the world’s rarest and expensive coffee – one day the receipt might be worth something! As it happens it was a small skinny cappuccino, so it’s not likely to hold any kind of financial value to me.
4. Does information have a historical value to my business? Had this been the coffee I purchased moments before proposing to my girlfriend, or after receiving some earth shattering personal news, I might want to keep all pieces of documentary evidence about that day for sentimental reasons. As it happens it was a regular Monday morning, and I was trying to bring myself out of a zombie-like slumber - I’m really not likely to look back and reminisce about this moment. For government information, The National Archives has published guidance on what types of records should be preserved forever, and stand ready to support organisations that hold ‘public records’.
So I’ve finished my rant about receipts. I’m sorry Caffè Nero, but I will not be keeping this receipt ‘for my records’ – my archival storage is reserved exclusively for those documents which hold the kinds of value described above.
If you’re wondering about applying this to your organisation’s document holdings, think about putting some rules in place around identifying the value of records at an early stage of the document ‘lifecycle’. Leaving it for a decade before reviewing it won’t help you understand its context, which is really important to support your decision to keep something. And to be honest, in a digital world that’s if after ten years you can even locate and access it!