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Why records cooperatives? For participants, records cooperatives provide local governments with worthwhile benefits including efficiency, economy, and performance.

When Benjamin Franklin said, "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately;' he did not have in mind reinventing local government. However, Franklin espoused a concept that has found subsequent application in towns, counties, and school districts across North America. The idea is local governments joining together in order to provide more efficient and economical records and information services. The theory of shared services has come to fruition in many notable examples and is worth a thorough review. There is proven value in the concept of records cooperatives.

What Is a Records Cooperative?

A cooperative is a collaborative organization that provides records and information services to two or more taxing entities of local government. The fundamental methodology is "shared services." It is apropos to think of a cooperative as a support service "of, by, and for" local governments.

There are two types of cooperatives:

* The first type operates on revenue that it generates. These cooperatives are autonomous, business-owned, and democratically controlled by their members--the people who buy or use their services. Unlike other businesses, cooperatives are organized solely to meet the needs of the members and not to accumulate capital for investors, according to Tim Paran's "Records Management Cooperatives: A Local Government Perspective."

* The other, more common, type of cooperative works from the funds appropriated by the governments it serves. While this type of cooperative appears to predominate, it is the fee-charging cooperative that may offer the most potential.

From Concept to Practice

The idea of "combine and conquer" is not new to local government. Fire and police units have often joined to form public safety, services; records management programs and information technology (IT) departments have sometimes allied; and department heads or other officials frequently have pooled their efforts to furnish joint services such as microfilming, imaging, and computer indexing. It is not unknown for public records offices to merge the holdings of their main files, such as the records of the Clarendon County, South Carolina, probate court and court clerk.

Most of the traditional cooperatives were formed because a party envisioned a more effective collaborative effort and was able to engender sufficient interactivity to initiate the program. This impetus, basically arising to meet a local need, gained momentum when such inter-governmental action was written into state laws. An example is Chapter 791 of the Local Government Code of Texas, which provides for inter-local government cooperation contracts. According to Paran, this movement carries for local government the same cooperative spirit that is manifested in general purchasing contracts between state and local government.

In recent decades, major instances of joint cooperation between counties and municipalities have become common. School districts are frequently part of the equation. At times, multiple school districts unite in cooperatives exclusively for education records. Paran provides the example of the Harris County Department of Education in Houston, which initiated operations in 1992 with 15 school districts within the county and 10 local entities in surrounding counties. Hospitals or other units of taxing entities may be part of the cooperative. "While it might be reasonable to expect such combinations to occur more frequently among local governments in urban areas, cooperatives are nonetheless evident among rural counties, small towns, and smaller school districts.

Pros & Cons of Cooperatives

Traditionally, a records management cooperative has typically provided training, document reproduction services, storage/retention/retrieval, and destruction. More recent cooperative concepts also include consulting, computer networking, and intelligent forms applications. Modern cooperatives may extend far beyond the stereotypical core of a hard-copy records center.

Paran identifies the following:

Objectives of Cooperatives

* Reduce the volume of records maintained in member agencies' main locations

* Encourage a continuous flow of information from offices to low-cost storage at the center's facility

* Cut the purchase of new filing equipment

* Reduce the number of file cabinets in prime office space

* Develop cost-justified imaging services (microfilm/optical)

* Provide centralized, scientifically designed facility for low-cost storage, records security, and rapid retrieval

Advantages of Cooperatives

* Permits more efficient use of facilities, staff, and equipment and may enhance services to the public, and consolidation benefits taxpayers

* Eliminates work duplication

* Encourages the development of higher levels of management expertise and experience, which is increasingly important in an age of growing technological complexity.

* Provides economies of scale

* Emphasizes the records management function across the combined cooperatives

* Centralizes the records functions, reducing demands on office space, equipment, and staff time

* Provides a broader base of political and economic support because the cooperative not only serves individual offices but also all or part of several local governmental/education entities

Disadvantages of Cooperatives

* Dependence for support, appropriation, records sharing, and cooperation upon offices not directly under the control of the collaborative venture

* Difficulty of prioritizing services across the various offices served--a situation that may be compounded if customers are charged for service

* Likelihood of greater physical distance among participating offices (than would be the case without the cooperative)

* Legal or procedural limitations, including confidentiality, for certain data such as mental health, adoption, and student records

The Unrealized Potential of Cooperatives

Cooperatives have been in operation for decades. They have been in the spotlight in cases where their programs have been featured at conferences and in publications. So, cooperatives are not secrets. If efficiency, economy, and constituent-service ostensibly are hallmarks of local government, and there are thousands of local government entities that might favorably consider the concept, why then are there not more cooperatives in place in the United States and Canada?

In other words: Why are some of the best-established local government records programs, such as Seattle, Philadelphia, the City and County of Charleston, South Carolina, and the school districts of West Palm Beach, Florida, not cooperatives?

The potential of cooperatives often goes unrealized because of

* Local governments' independent-mindedness: Counties, cities, and school districts are not known for a kindred spirit of coalescence. This is particularly true wherever officials are elected rather than appointed. Independent communities and governing bodies may tend to regard themselves as rivals more than allies. Local entities are infamous for turf wars, records possessiveness, and, at times, a uniquely introspective and counterproductive provinciality.

* An absence of the vision, initiative, know-how, and political clout required to establish a cooperative program: Foresight and ingenuity are necessary to put in motion a functional cooperative. A party must have the concept, as well as the skills, to effect basic changes in the way that two or more local governments do business. This requires commitment, leadership, persuasion, and assiduity. The developmental timeframe may be daunting and the risks intimidating. Neither the overall reward of improved operations and service, nor the personal opportunity for advancement, may be sufficient to entice the right type of politico or professional into this campaign.

* A lack of management savoir-faire and persistence to maintain the program: Inherent in the cooperative effort is the interface of two or more governmental entities. That means that the person in charge of the endeavor will have to reach into two or more hierarchical organizations and create and maintain enough interactivity, service, and results to jumpstart the program. Then, he or she must keep it going. The requisite interpersonal skills, planning, monitoring, adjustments, and demonstration of results will be exacting for the best of managers. Local government records work is the same as records and information management universally--the essential ingredient most often lacking is the management savvy.

* The difficulty of the challenge Local government administrators sometimes refer to themselves as "mobile managers" because the exigencies of their work often keep them moving from one problem to another. The same difficulties may await records managers.

Archives-based Cooperatives

A small minority of cooperatives have joined their program with an archives program. In the front office and in their outreach via Web sites and published or online finding aids, they tout research. They may be doing substantial records management and service to offices on a regular basis, but their bread-and-butter functions smack of the search room. The Troup County, Georgia, program is a good example. Its archival bent is manifested in the indexing of newspapers, the development of oral history, assistance with the planning for a county museum, and the publishing of Travels Through Troup County: A Guide to its Architecture and History. Kaye Lanning Minchew, director of the Troup County program, is an acknowledged national leader in local government archives. The city of Rome and Floyd County, Georgia's Web site asserts that "researchers from as far away as California utilize the collection of archival documents stored at the records center."

Archives-based cooperatives appear more often in the South and are typically associated with a foundation or society. A private foundation or society overlapping a local government records function makes an interesting combination.

Elements of Successful Cooperatives

With enough participating entities--and if they are charged for services that reach significant numbers--success can be attained. Moreover, except perhaps for start-up operational expenses, a budgetary appropriation may not even be needed. Some cooperatives are unabash-edly entrepreneurial. For those trying to survive in an increasingly austere environment, the many-member, fee-charging cooperative may be the answer.

For a town, county, and school district contemplating a cooperative, the benefits include:

* Rather than two or more inactive records storage areas (or worse, no designated, controlled inactive records storage area), a cooperative would provide for one storage area for inactive records that would serve all offices of the town/county/school district. That would save, in file equipment, floor space, and staff time, an estimated 80 percent over maintaining these records in prime office space.

* Instead of a miscellany of technological applications across the offices of local government, there can be a single, coordinated effort that makes best use of expertise, hardware/software, systems design, and networking.

* Rather than low-level or no management focus on the records and information function, there can be central management of developing expertise that will have a fighting chance of dealing with the more complex issues of imaging, micrographics, and computer applications that are part of today's records systems.

* Instead of piecemeal, haphazard, hit-or-miss operations in two or more local government programs, there can be a coordinated system that is attuned to the key areas of records and information management (such as retrieval, indexing, files management, forms control, and retention/disposition), thereby realizing for all participants in the cooperative the benefits of efficiency, economy, and performance.

* The cooperative venture is likely to afford a new level of expertise. Local government records and information management is more exacting than ever. Deed offices are called to task for deficient recording, school districts are buffeted by student disability assessment records requirements, accounting irregularities are rampant, and litigation support looms larger than ever. New demands on in-house competence warrant a higher level of sophistication.

Lessons of Successful Cooperatives

The following lessons can be gleaned from the practices of successful cooperatives:

* Adaptively use existing structures. For good reasons, such as cutting expenses or simply taking the path of least resistance, cooperatives often appear to seek out existing buildings of little value to others and use them to advantage. The Troup County, Georgia, Archives opened in 1983 in the 1917 LaGrange National Bank Building, which meant that it got a vault for vital records at no cost.

* Build a strong base of support. Rome-Floyd does not need to add up its cooperative members; it simply gets all of them that are available. Every public office in the entire county, be it government or education, has bought into the cooperative system. The Harris County, Texas, Records Management Cooper-ative includes scores of school districts. The Troup County Archives garners allies both individually and collectively. This cooperative has a parent agency in the Troup County Historical Society and taps the membership (700 strong nationally) of that society.

* Ask for advice (whether you take it or not); it prompts buy-in. Some organizations cite helpful officers, boards of trustees, honorary trustees, committee chairs, past presidents, and staff. These cooperatives are apparently riding the crest of involvement--even nurturing in their supporters a sense of ownership.

* Consider user fees. The Harris County Records Management Cooperative does not serve county or city entities per se but has quite handily engendered the fee-paying support of scores of constituent school districts. This program gets its strength less from budget allocation than from fee-based services--a healthy entrepreneurial option that frees the cooperative from the whims of the local government budget process and restrictions.

* Justify your program. It is difficult for local government records and information managers to survive in the maelstrom of county/city/school district budgetary competition. Results must be produced, documented, promoted, and reaffirmed for number crunchers, zero-based budgeters, and legislators. Program justification, via cost saving and customer service, is more important than ever. Perceptive cooperatives are sensitive to this. The Harris County Records Management Cooperative Web site, for example, notifies the numerous constituent school districts it assists with compliance with the Local Government Records Act while providing "retention scheduling, consulting, electronic imaging, microfilming, and commercial record center services."

* Advocacy is an essential ingredient. A cooperative effort across local governments not only will have to establish indisputable effectiveness but also will have to budget time to get credit for the effort.

* Make the governing body look good. Leading local government cooperatives are a credit to the counties, cities, or school districts that underwrite them. All the cooperatives cited here either have their own Web sites or are conspicuous in their sponsoring Web site. Rome-Floyd published an overview of its program in an international journal. The director of the Troup County cooperative authored Archival Programs for Local Governments, published by the National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators (NAGARA). Though the squeaky wheel may get the grease for incipient programs that are struggling, the spoils of victory are the true proclamation of the arrival of a successful government program. Council members and commissioners receive so much criticism that they will gladly reward a program that brings glittering publicity. Consequently, successful efforts, such as Rome-Floyd, wisely proclaim their award-winning performance, including receiving the 1985 National Association of Counties Award, the 1991 International Institute of Municipal Clerks Award, and the 1997 Secretary of State's Award for Excellence in Records Management.

* Look at the dates. It seemed that the Rome-Floyd program marked its calendar to schedule and ensure continued recognition. It isn't Machiavellian; it is just taking care of cooperative business. The program has a 19,000-cubic-foot records center, and is responsible for the transfer, storage, disposition, and microfilming of all government, court, and school records produced with the City of Rome-Floyd County. This program does not allow anyone to overlook its national stature--its Web page says it was the "first program in the United States to serve four separate entities: county, city, county schools, and city schools."

* Time is money. The litmus test of records operations is retrieval. The auditors, county/city administrators, governing body, public, and media see this as the bottom line. The ability to produce desired records as needed is essential to getting officials' buy-in for any systems enhancement. Therefore, the standard, hallmark, and winning ingredient of cooperatives is records retrieval. The Rome-Floyd program touts its twice-a-day courier delivery. Any records cooperative worth its salt will be able to streamline records retrieval and will use this attainment as proof of its efficacy.

* Records cooperatives are clearly common sense. A records cooperative may soon be coming to a local government near you.

References

DocuWare. "Case Study: Rome/Floyd Records Program." Available at www.imagingco.com/ case_studies/publicsc.pdf (accessed 8 October 2004).

MacDonald, Malcolm R. "Cooperation in Local Government: The Rome-Floyd Records Program." Records Management Quarterly. October 1986.

Minchew, Kaye Lanning. Archival Programs for Local Governments. Mbany, New York: National Association of Government Archivists and Records Administrators (NAGARA), 1995.

Paran, Tim. "Records Management Cooperatives: A Local Government Perspective." Presentation at ARMA International 47th Annual Conference. 1 October 2002.

Travels Through Troup County. A Guide to its Architecture and History. Troup County, Georgia: Troup County Historical Society, 1996.

For More Information Harris County Department of Education--www.hcde-texas.org

City of Rome-Floyd County, Georgia- -www.floydboe.net/floyd/records or www.floydboe.net/ Pages/Departments/records.htm

Troup County Georgia Archives--www.trouparchives.org

At the Core

This article

* Defines records cooperatives

* Examines the pros and cons of cooperatives

* Provides elements of and lessons from successful cooperative projects

Creating a Cooperative Program

For those charged with the responsibility of creating a cooperative program and conquering all the obstacles that come with it, here are some things to consider:

* The concept: The plan must identify who will participate in the cooperative and to what extent.

* The enabling authority: What will be the basis for operations? What will be the responsibility and authority of the managerial core of the cooperative effort? To what extent must this agreement be committed to writing up front? Whose buy-in is necessary, and how will it be obtained?

* The movers and shakers: What are the staffing needs? How will staff be selected, trained, and deployed? What is the job description for the leader? How will the staff be supported and retained?

* The operation: How will the program work day-in and day-out? What is envisioned as standard operations? What can be done to ensure favorable responses from participants, administrators, policymakers, and the public and press?

Staff Needs Organizational Chart In its survey of staff needs, the City/County of Denver, Colorado developed a basic organizational chart:

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Julian L Mims, Ph.D., CRM, CA, has served in local government records and information management as a county department head, a county resource professional with the state archives of New York and South Carolina, and a private sector consultant. His Aiken County, South Carolina, records program earned a County Achievement Award from the National Association of Counties (NACO), and was featured in AIIM, the American City and County and the NACo County News. He is the author of Records Management: A Practical Guide, published by the International City/County Management Association (ICMA), and editor of a soon-to-be-released ICMA study on electronic records. He may be contacted at mims3299@cs.com.
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Author:Mims, Julian L.
Publication:Information Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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