A punishment to fit the crime

Man in the stocks at Pennington, near Ulverston

I recall when I first started working as an Information Management Consultant at The National Archives back in 2005 I was learning about how to appraise records for historical value and our resident appraisal expert at the time used the phrase ‘A punishment to fit the crime’ to demonstrate to us that not all records should be appraised in the same way. I have never forgotten this and it occurred to me recently that this concept also applies to work that I have been doing around understanding the value of information and managing it accordingly.

There has been much talk across government and the Knowledge and Information Management profession in the past few years about what actually constitutes a ‘record’ in our complex digital world. Lots of definitions exist but in fact when giving advice to government departments we say that all information you create is a record regardless of format or location. The legislation that we work to in government, The Public Records Act, backs this up:

 “records” includes not only written records but records conveying information by any other means whatsoever. s10(1)

In addition all information created by bodies that fall under the Public Records Act are ‘public records.’

However, the way in which you manage this information will vary depending upon its value to the organisation and this is where the ‘punishment to fit the crime’ comes in. This could be the value of the information for carrying out business functions, as evidence of a business activity, in complying with legislative rules and regulations and historical value. The value of information should be an essential consideration in deciding on the policies, processes and systems that are required to manage that information. For example:

  • If you have information that is of short term value you don’t want to be incurring the costs of keeping it beyond its useful life. Storage may be cheap (and that is debatable) but it is costly to maintain, preserve and provide access to that information over time
  • All information in the UK public sector is subject to legislative record keeping requirements and you need to make sure that you are managing your information in order to comply with them. For example, personal data will need to disposed of in line with the requirements of the Data Protection Act
  • For information of medium/long term value that is required to carry out or provide evidence of a business function, you need to have the right policies, processes and systems in place to ensure that you can find, open, understand, trust and work with the information for as long as you need to

Once information is no longer of value to the organisation then it should be disposed of. Disposal can mean deletion but can also mean that the information will be transferred elsewhere, for example, to an archive or another government organisation.

Look at your own organisation:

  • Do you manage information according to its value?
  • Are you disposing of information once it is no longer needed?

If not, what are you waiting for?


  1. lawrence serewicz says:

    Thanks for a timely reminder of the records management challenge. I was looking at it from a different angle, with emails. http://thoughtmanagement.org/2011/09/24/do-companies-really-know-how-to-value-their-emails/

    However, this leads to a deeper challenge, which is being addressed but not in the ways we will expect, about how information is valued and thereby managed. I think that once records can be given a value, not a static one, then they will be managed with greater interest and purpose.

    I explored that in this blog post. http://thoughtmanagement.org/2012/04/21/here-is-the-next-revolution-in-records-and-records-management/

    I would be interested in your views on the viability of such an approach and whether this is the way to get organisations to manage their records before their records manage them.

    1. Jo Moorshead says:

      Hi Lawrence

      Thank you for the links to your fascinating blog posts. Email is certainly a thorny problem. I agree that whilst compliance is an important factor, ‘cost’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘value’ are key drivers, particularly when trying to get senior management support/funding for information management. The ideas that you propose are certainly interesting…

  2. David Matthew says:

    It is often difficult to see the value of a certain record until many years have passed (e.g. economic crises and the Falklands) and that the records should be seen as a whole. I agree on the premise to keep only what is needed and that was a principle set by the Grigg Committee in the 1950s. It is therefore bewildering that recent accessions from Treasury/Iron Mountain have no long-term business or historical value (Appropriation Accounts and Estimates) and have been previously disposed of under Schedule since the Public Records Act of 1877 and later on by Treasury Circulars of 1937 and 1951 as well as later. One could, and I believe should, argue that there is a future cost to The National Archives to store ‘worthless’ material. If you follow the current accessioning premise then hundreds of files will be un-necessarily kept.

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