Online services fall off the record

As online government services increase, public sector IT managers face a new era of electronic record management system implementation. Recording information published on and removed from Web sites, and integrating e-mail into record systems are two major problems in a cultural shift in records management according to field experts who spoke to Computerworld.

The issues follow various changes to record-keeping policy by Australia’s state records authorities in the past 12 months. State Records South Australia is developing a record-keeping metadata standard, and its New South Wales cousin has stepped up its campaign for online business to be documented.

“In the last few years we’ve been rolling out new standards, and some of these relate specifically to e-mail,” said Cassandra Findlay, senior project officer at the State Records Authority (SRA) of NSW.

SRA NSW recently surveyed 53 CEOs of NSW public agencies on their attitudes towards record-keeping practices.

“We were concerned how much support there was from CEOs,” said Findlay, who said the survey received “a mixed response.”

“There’s a perception that (records management) is regulated and boring, but we need to show them how it’s integral to e-commerce,” Findlay said.

Recent cases of businesses losing legal disputes because of poor record-keeping, as well as the need for compliance with ISO standards means developing solutions for electronic record-keeping were crucial, she said.

Including e-mail in corporate records is part of the “big cultural shift” that government agencies are, or will, experience, Tony Mitchell, records manager at the NSW Department of Public Works and Service, said.

Mitchell’s agency uses the government endorsed Recfind software to register and file documents. In addition, the IT staff design databases and applications.

“We’ve been looking for guidance. At DPWS, with e-mail, we’re still on a print-and-file system. But eventually we’ll be keeping the master document electronically. We have so much correspondence by e-mail that a lot of it should be captured by record management systems,” he said. E-mail has become a useful form of documentation as it can show the path of who was informed, when.

However, Mark Towers, national manager of information management for Alphawest, a NSW government contracted supplier of records and information management systems, said capturing e-mail in record management systems was an initial step.

“IT staff will want to look at adding information about the e-mails, things like content type; e-mail can always be improved,” he said.

Internal information is not the only concern though. SRA NSW’s Findlay questioned whether agencies are tracking the information displayed or entered through their Web sites, because the software available does not perform this effectively, she said.

“The challenge lies in databases and custom-built applications. These need to become integral to the system, not tacked on the end.

“Sometimes the challenge is finding where the other metadata exists, because often it does exist (elsewhere). Sometimes it’s not present in applications, but present in e-mail.”

Mitchell agreed: “There’s still a way to go in application development. The applications now are pretty good, but they’re still evolving,” he said.

“The process of capturing and how you create meta data needs to be looked at,” Alphawest’s Towers said. “(So does) how searching is enabled.

“Most records applications need to support the meta data rules in the jurisdiction they’re operating in. Most applications can support this; the difficulty is defining the values to go into the fields,” he said.

Using a search engine analogy, Towers said that while results from a search can always be refined, it’s better to affect how the meta data is created.

Accordingly, SRA NSW is pushing for IT staff to be more closely involved early in the design of record management systems.

“Get IT management on board and involved early,” was a recommendation of one SRA NSW forum presentation available online.

“Everyone has to become more knowledgeable on these systems,” Mitchell said.

“It is necessary to consult with IT staff before choosing a system, and ask them, can it be managed, can it be improved, etc.”