Developing the local government classification scheme

A government building with pillars Paul Dodgson and Richard Jeffrey-Cook ask: Why a classification scheme?

A classification scheme is at the heart of effective information management. There are at least five reasons for a classification scheme.

The first reason is to place records into context. A single record on its own provides little information. A group of related records provides substantially more information. A classification scheme provides the structure for grouping related information together.

The second reason is to provide the primary storage structure for record keeping. The classification scheme determines where the records are stored. This does not always have to be the case. For electronic records in particular, it is possible to create pointers to the records themselves and use an alternative approach to determine where the record is stored.

The third reason is to allow records to be browsed. Browsing is distinct from searching. Searching uses metadata, information about the record, or content to find a record. Browsing finds the record by starting with broad categories and then progressively selecting narrower categories until the record can be located.

The fourth reason is to provide a framework for implementing access control policies, determining who is entitled to view and add new records.

The final reason is to provide a framework for implementing retention and disposal policies. This is a particularly challenging task for all organisations, not just local authorities.

The Local Government Classification Scheme (LGCS) is designed to support all these reasons. It is intended to be a starting point for a records manager to create the classification scheme for the local authority. A local authority will need to determine which classes are appropriate to the responsibilities of that authority. Different local authorities have different responsibilities.

What went wrong with your file plan?

In days gone by, and prior to August 1981 when the IBM pc was introduced, files were often managed by clerks. Their role was to associate correspondence with existing files, or create new ones as required. A rather simplistic view.

In fact their role was vital, these clerks kept the corporate memory, embodied within the files. They ensured content was made available when needed, the 'brought forward' systems to those that remember it. They could at a glance find where content was filed, when it was received, who it was passed to for attention - the metadata guardians.

Once we moved into the electronic world, the controls described above were largely lost. Staff members had access to a network and had the ability to create folders. Soon the mess became clear to see. No coordination, subjective based file management, poor retention rules and largely non-existent version control.

A brief history

In August 2003, the Records Management Society (RMS), Local Government Group established the RMS Classification Scheme Working Party. The remit was to establish a generic classification scheme for local government.

The Working Group met on a number of occasions, out of which was born the Local Government Classification Scheme.

By January 2004, a list of top level functions had been prepared. Colleagues working on developing the second level functions were each allocated two or more of the top level functions and then asked to find what activities related to those functions. Following this, a second level, or activity level was developed.

In May 2004, the working group released Version 0.01. The scheme included scope notes, retention rules, security, class definitions, FOI accessibility and a simple description of the purpose of the whole scheme. By this time the extended value of the LGCS was coming to the fore, particularly relating to the use by electronic document and records management systems (EDRMS).

During 2004, the LGCS was made freely available to all and any users. In using the LGCS, Dodgson recognised the need to relate the scheme to other classification schemas, mapping to other information stores with a longer term view that was intended to try and create some form of synchronisation between them.

This was an acknowledgement that the disparate nature of information stores was also creating information sores, different storage areas for information trying to carry the same message, but without synchronisation the message was becoming distorted across the different access channels.

Indeed, some messages were totally different. The fear was that a visit to the website would elicit a completely different set of guidance should a customer contact the authority by telephone. Dodgson's thoughts moved toward a holistic circle, presenting data via different access channels but from a central core.

Following his view that we needed to establish more functionality in a holistic way, Dodgson concluded that there could be value in mapping the LGCS to the IPSV (integrated public sector vocabulary) and also the LGSL (Local Government Services List) as well as updating the LGCS and adding in retention rules. The RMS approved a project to undertake this work.

Version 2 of the LGCS

In developing version 2, two important decisions were taken. The first was not to change any of the 23 top level functions in the classification scheme. The second was to change the way the scheme was structured compared to version 1.

Keeping the top level functions was a simple decision. Few problems had been reported with the top level functions and they reflected the main responsibilities of local authorities. Changing the way the scheme was structured was a more significant and difficult decision.

The first step was to distinguish between classification and case files. Version 1 mixed the classification and case file in either 'Function, Activity, Transaction' or 'Case File, Activity, Transaction'. This became known in some circles as FAT CAT.

In reality case files were usually introduced at the second or Activity level, but might sometimes appear at the third level. Version 2 removed the case files from the hierarchy but record which activities or transactions might appear in a case file.

This has two advantages, the hierarchy is tidier and it provides flexibility for the user of LGCS to introduce the case series at whatever point is appropriate for their physical implementation of the scheme.

The second step was to introduce examples of records. This is necessary because some records may be an exception to the standard retention schedule applicable to the class. An EDRMS handles these exceptions through the concept of a record type. In addition, a record type can be used to vary the normal access control or to record specific metadata.

These two changes allowed retention schedules to be added to the LGCS. These were taken from the RMS Retention Guidance produced by the Local Government Group. This was one of the first examples of a published classification scheme incorporating retention guidance.

Where can we get the LGCS?

The LGCS v2.01 is freely available via the RMS website - www.rms-gb.org.uk

Paul Dodgson is currently compliance and records manager at Leicestershire County Council and is vice-chairman of the Records Management Society as well as secretary of two information management groups and chair of the ESD-Lists Editorial Panel.

Richard Jeffrey-Cook is managing director of In-Form Consult, an independent information management consultancy.

August 2007