Applying Hoarding Tips to Document Management: 5 Ways to Help Cities Declutter

November 15, 2019

Brian Ocfemia, Engineering Manager, Sophicity

When someone physically hoards items, their bad habits create a “mountain of stuff” that becomes very visible over time. Typically, a breaking point arrives when the problem becomes so overwhelming that people eventually must deal with it. Hoarding can go on for years before someone finally says “Enough! We must do something about it.”

The same thing happens with electronic information—but the problem is less noticeable because the hoarding does not turn into a physical “mountain of stuff.” You might think, “What’s the problem? I’ve got plenty of space to store my data. What does it matter how many files we store, or how we store them?”

In a blog post last year, we talked about a few problems resulting from electronic hoarding that add risk to your city:

  • You’re adding a legal risk to your city.
  • You’re adding an operational burden to your city.
  • You’re adding a storage burden to your city.

While a city may acknowledge an issue with record hoarding, they may wonder where to begin, how to find the time, and how to approach the decluttering process. Consider these hoarding tips and apply them to your document management system to help your city go from cluttered to decluttered.

1. Assess your specific problems and come up with a plan.

Each hoarding situation is different. You need to assess your current situation. Ask yourself:

  • What documents do you have?
  • Where are they stored?
  • How many do you have?
  • Which are the most important?
  • Which are the most used?
  • How are they organized?
  • How are they maintained?
  • How long do you keep documents?
  • What is your process for deleting and disposing of documents?

Once you answer those questions to the best of your ability, you need to come up with a plan to fix any problems revealed. That plan should include:

  • Who will oversee document management at your city?
  • What type of document management solution will you use, and who will be trained on it?
  • How will you organize the information?
  • Where will documents be stored and accessed? Onsite? The cloud?
  • What is the process for documents and records going forward? How does this process align to your records retention policies? How will you handle paper documents?
  • How will you secure documents and restrict access to authorized users?
  • What is your timeline? When do you plan on implementing or reconfiguring your document management system?

If needed, IT professionals and business analysts can help you with the trickier aspects of your document management plan.

2. Start slow.

Hoarders often grow disheartened when they look at their entire pile of clutter. It can overwhelm and discourage them from even starting. It looks impossible to wade through everything, like facing a mountain. That’s why personal organization professionals suggest never tackling everything in one day. Instead, chip away at your stuff in bite-sized chunks.

Maybe you can focus first on one department. Once you get that department done, you will have learned a lot and can apply those lessons to another department. The important thing is to get started somewhere and take one step at a time.

3. Organize documents in some sort of system.

Once you delve into your plan, you want to think hard about how you organize documents. A document management system will help greatly by centralizing documents in one place. That means no more searching though cabinets, on people’s computers, or through shared folders on servers that may or may not contain the documents.

However, you don’t just want to dump documents in the new central location, which would be like a hoarder throwing all their stuff into the living room. It’s there, but not very findable!

Two tools within a document management system can help you organize:

  • Pages, libraries, and folders: At a high level, you can create pages (such as for a department), libraries (such as for a specific function within a department), and folders that can organize specific documents under clear labels. These levels of hierarchy can be planned out and help give you an organizational structure to your document storage.
  • Tagging: To help with searching and retrieving documents, you can tag documents with something called metadata. Many documents already have metadata that usually includes the date the document was created, the document title, and the document’s author. You may decide to add additional keywords to a document (such as “agenda”) or custom metadata (such as a required short document description to help people understand what it is at a glance). While search capabilities within a document management system tend to work well, tagging helps you find documents quicker based on your own system—similar to how you would label manila folders in a file cabinet.

4. “Keep or toss”: Use state records retention schedules to help you purge.

As a city, you’ve got one of the best excuses to not hoard: state records retention schedules. These policies, if adopted, tell you how long you must keep records. You don’t need to keep them past a certain date. So get rid of them!

If you are accustomed to keeping records indefinitely, you may feel trepidation about beginning such a purge. However, you increase storage costs and liability by holding onto expired records. Purge them. Once purged, you can look at future documents through the lens of these questions:

  • Do you need to keep it? If so, place the document where it’s supposed to go.
  • If you do need to keep it, then for how long? Build an automated workflow that notifies you when documents need to be purged.
  • If you don’t need to keep the document, then get rid of it.

For reference, we’ve provided a few records retention schedules for states where cities we serve are located.

5. Go digital and get rid of paper.

While a city may enthusiastically embrace document management for electronic information, paper may feel like a different, unique challenge. Your strategy for paper will parallel your strategy with electronic information but require a few different steps.

  • Use a scanner with optical character recognition (OCR) technology so that words in paper documents are searchable after you convert them to electronic documents.
  • Once scanned, apply your same organizational and archiving/purging structure to paper documents.
  • Go slow—one box at a time—and leverage free to cheap labor to scan high volumes of paper.
  • If you choose not to scan all your paper documents from the past, then create a process for paper moving forward—but make sure you scan each paper document moving forward and follow your process.

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