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Beware the Spirit vs. the Letter of a Policy

TL;DR It’s bad enough when an information policy doesn’t align with an organization’s objectives. But it’s far worse when it has more to do with protecting a fiefdom than the greater good. Case in point: the New Hampshire Governor’s Office?

There’s an interesting dynamic taking place in the New Hampshire governor’s office that to this observer is spotlighting the spirit vs. the letter of its Email and Document Retention and Disposal Policy. As a records and information professional, you’ll want to keep an eye on it as it may be relevant to the politics in your organization in the way it may become to the politics of this New England state.

An article in yesterday’s Boston Globe was headlined “N.H. governor’s policy to destroy records within 30 days raises transparency concerns” and noted that transparency advocates are worried that “records can be destroyed before anyone even realizes they exist, let alone requests them.”

The Letter

The policy itself reads, in part, as follows:

·         Emails should be retained for no longer than 30 days. However, no emails may be deleted if they may potentially be responsive to a pending Right to Know request.

·         A hard or digital copy of all final drafts of official business documents (memos, statements, executive orders, etc.) produced by the office should be retained for no longer than 30 days unless a longer retention period is necessary for either historical or reference purposes. Drafts and notes may be discarded at any time, provided that no drafts and notes may be discarded if they are potentially responsive to a pending Right to Know request.

·         Work related text messages may be deleted at any time and may not be retained for longer than 30 days, provided that no work related text messages may be deleted if they may potentially be responsive to a pending Right to Know request.

The Spirit?

It’s clear from the exception language here that the state’s Right to Know provision is being addressed, as requests in process are not subject to the 30-day disposal deadline. In this, the letter of the policy is commendable, as is its spirit of compliance.

The law’s preamble includes the statement that “The purpose of this chapter is to ensure both the greatest possible public access to the actions, discussions and records of all public bodies, and their accountability to the people” (Chapter 91-A, Access to Governmental Records and Meetings). So the question is: is one month of availability enough time to ensure the greatest public access and accountability? People would have to be paying pretty close attention to the goings-on in the governor’s office, and respond nearly in real-time, for it to be.

My vote is that this is far too short to meet the stated objective, and that it is fair to wonder why the governor needs it to be. (It’s also fair to note that his predecessor also had no love for open access, so he’s not the only one.) But I don’t live NH, so I literally don’t have a vote.

The Takeaway

What I do have, though, is plenty of experience working in organizations whose policies are disconnected from their organization’s stated objectives – or worse, whose executives and managers see playing corporate politics as part of their jobs and write policies that sound right but have more to do with fiefdom-protection than the greater good.

Happily, the latter circumstance is far less common than the former, which actually is not unusual at all. But the latter does have the potential to all but cancel your ability to do information right, and it is worth taking a hard look at what’s happening in the Granite State’s corner office in case something similar unfolds where you work.

How can I help? To get started, download our FREE guide 5 Steps to Doing Information Right™ – you’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.


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