A critical task of managing public records

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On Tuesday, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley offered this astonishing fact in her State of the Courts address before the Legislature: Five million new pieces of paper flow into the clerks’ offices in Maine’s courts each year. They include civil and criminal filings, arrest warrants, orders of protection, divorce decrees, petitions for guardianship and adoption, among many other things.

In a conversation with the Sun Journal on Monday, Secretary of State Matt Dunlap said an equally astonishing thing: More information across the globe has been created since 2007 than in all of human history prior to 2007.

The common thread that ties the explosion of documents in our courts and information in our age?

Technology.

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Even though the courts may administer cases and store records on paper, most of that material is created electronically.

And, nearly all government documents — including correspondence — are now created and exist in digital form.

“The digital age has given massive tools to many, many people,” Dunlap said, and made it easier to create information and share documents.

We’re good at creating information, but not so good at storing it. Or storing it in a way that we can find it again.

Dunlap believes so strongly that state employees must understand the need to retain and manage documents for current government administration and for archival purposes that, in November, he sent a directly-worded email to all state workers noting their shared “obligation to properly retain and preserve the records we create and receive in the course of our official duties.”

In that note, he requested that all 12,000 workers read a new state policy on preservation and retention of paper and digital records and directed each to sign an electronic acknowledgement they had read the policy.

To date, only 10 percent of state workers have done that.

That’s a disappointing response from the folks who manage our public records.

Why is management of records so important?

Dunlap offered a good example:

In 1776, the Continental Congress promised to grant land to soldiers who joined the revolution in military service and served out their entire enlistment. If killed in action, the promise extended to that soldier’s family.

Men, eager to become landowners, mustered into service on this promise.

The problem was keeping track of who was entitled to those land grants, particularly since various ranks of soldiers were entitled to different amounts of land.

According to Dunlap, in the 1830s, men who were living and begging on the streets in Massachusetts were discovered to be revolutionary war veterans who didn’t have the paperwork required to prove they were entitled to the promised land grant. The documents were gone, many destroyed in a fire at the War Department in 1800.

So, these men were given a second opportunity to swear out an affidavit about their revolutionary war service and were then granted the promised land.

These affidavits were used in their time to transfer property, but they now constitute the only personal narrative of what Mainers (then Bay Staters) did during the war. Those old deed transfers are now archival treasures.

There is another, more recent example of the critical need to manage public records, according to Dunlap.

Several decades ago someone tossed out dozens of cardboard boxes stacked in a storage cage. The boxes contained personnel records of state employees but no one had been in the boxes for years so no one thought they were necessary.

But, once the documents were tossed out, all record of pensions funds for these retirees were gone and people couldn’t document earned benefits.

Can you imagine if someone threw away all record of your retirement savings?

Much more recently, at least 1,000 records for state employees who opted for early retirement were destroyed when someone — thinking paper records existed of employee service and benefits — deleted the digital records.

It took months to rebuild the records, and how can anyone know if all the information is accurate?

Maine has retention schedules for records for good reason, but many employees don’t know what those schedules are and 90 percent of employees haven’t acknowledged the state’s new policy requirement they be informed of those schedules.

Why not?

Maine is quickly moving toward a time when all we’ll have are what archivists call “born digital” records. Thing is, these digital records can easily be killed with the single strike of a delete key.

“If we don’t get our hands around digital archiving, we stand the risk of losing the information of our age,” Dunlap said.

According to Saufley, the records management practices in Maine’s courts haven’t changed in the past 100 years. That cannot continue.

Digital records are used to carry out governmental tasks, feed public access to government and, as Saufley argued, they “enhance public safety, allowing the necessary information exchange among courts, law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, state and federal agencies, and Corrections.”

Records are necessary for government administration, and so is the proper storage and access to those records.

We expect state employees to know how to handle the paperwork that crosses their desks and the records that appear on their computer screens, particularly since the state now has a policy that requires such awareness.

It’s about preserving our past, managing our present and preparing for our future.

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.

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