A busy examiner, working on 15-20 other cases, sets a file aside in the “delayed/pending” queue while awaiting information, and a gun is sold and nine people died. A utility transferred responsibility for recordkeeping functions to its distribution business unit, files containing information about pressure and strength tests were not kept current, and an explosion kills eight. Computer files are accidentally deleted from an Airbus plane and three of its four engines shut down, causing a crash that kills four.
What do these seemingly disparate events have in common?
They all involve some element of clerical error, tied to process, actions (or inaction), and information management. Clerical errors have become so clichéd that it is easy to disregard their potential importance. At best, errors tied to poor information management create inconvenience. At worst, they can lead to death. Information management matters.
Information management is much more than simply filing and disposition of documents. It demands that attention be paid to accountability, integrity, protection, compliance, availability, retention, disposition, and transparency. In the case of the FBI’s examiner, she was unable to make a determination regarding Dylann Roof’s eligibility for gun purchase because of a lack of availability of information. Whether the Lexington County prosecutor’s office had the information and simply was unable to send it to the FBI in a timely manner, or whether they didn’t have it at all makes little difference now. A business decision by PG&E to no longer update pipeline plat sheets—or generate such maps for new work—meant that information about high-pressure tests and construction details were not uniformly available. The NTSB has determined that PG&E records showed “the section of pipeline that exploded in San Bruno was seamless pipe, when in fact it was made up of six unusual sections welded together, and contained a longitudinal seam that failed.” Here, principles of integrity, protection, compliance, and retention all failed. Indeed, the PUC of California has recently published its findings, assessing a record $1.6 billion penalty against PG&E, which is not recoverable from its customers. Information management—it matters.
And these are not isolated examples. Poor information management occurs every day in every industry. See here, here, and here. Are we perfect? No. Can all recordkeeping errors be prevented? No, again. We’re human. But what we can do is redouble our efforts to recognize the significant potential for life- or livelihood-threatening error, and do better.
The list of recordkeeping requirements that directly impact the health, safety, and well-being of each of us could fill volumes: prescriptions, medical records, equipment maintenance records, financial audits, tax records, and on and on. Compliance, risk and value—these are the three legs of information governance. Before we can derive maximum value, however, we must first pay attention to the basics. And let’s not forget the potential human consequences of accepting risk. Take steps to ensure your own information management house is in order. Develop a legally-validated retention schedule, and follow it. Examine your information management processes to identify potential failure points, and address them. Find out where your information is stored, and ensure that it is governed by the principles noted above.
Information informs and governs our lives, both public and private. Yes, information governance matters.