In Canada, the national government duplicated information across agencies, including 80 percent of electronic information that also was unmanaged and unstructured.

In Colorado, the state's Northern Water Conservancy District lacked a computerized solution to document management of records and maps. And in the European Court of Human Rights, the issue was reducing costs for managing and delivering documents to a wide range of clients.

In each case, the solution was something called enterprise content management (ECM), an umbrella term for document imaging, document management, content management, knowledge management and workflow. But what exactly is ECM and why should public-sector CIOs be particularly concerned with yet another enterprise solution?

The answer is simple. ECM is a framework that can help public-sector CIOs meet mandates of improving processes, achieving efficiencies and protecting sensitive data while helping knowledge workers execute their jobs.

The ECM concept has been evolving since the late 1990s. Defined as a strategy to enable enterprisewide availability of content by the Gartner Group in What Constitutes Enterprise Content Management, ECM gives public-sector CIOs a new foundation on which to build a meaningful information management infrastructure to serve knowledge workers' needs.

Prior to ECM's emergence, legacy applications for records management, image management, portals/intranets, collaboration or workflow often operated as stovepipe systems and offered little integration or data sharing. Such limited toolsets are now being replaced by comprehensive frameworks emphasizing information sharing and distribution, better security controls, and federated search and retrieval.

The public sector often selected and implemented the early generation of information management technologies to meet specific needs of the IT department or records management bureau. While these solutions met narrow technical or functional requirements, user acceptance of such tools was often low, with the systems seeming irrelevant to their specific job functions or perceived as cumbersome with limited tangible value.

Problems became obvious. Many broad-based electronic records/document management programs failed in the late 1990s and early 2000s due to lack of end-user participation and insufficient alignment of records management/IT needs with the expectations and business requirements of the knowledge workers affected.

Converging Content

In recent years, several important trends have converged: a widely anticipated shift in workplace demographics, the continued growth in e-government initiatives, and a move toward an enterprise approach to information management. These changes are forcing the public sector to closely examine its information management infrastructure.

As a result, government agencies and IT executives must assess risk management, achieve operational efficiencies and build an infrastructure that can handle the accelerating shift of electronic information into the workplace.

Several recent studies have examined the impending demographic shift among government knowledge workers. At risk in the ensuing wave of retirements over the next decade is the large-scale loss of senior project and technical managers.

The Clinger-Cohen Study of federal IT staff, conducted in 2003, noted that 76 percent of the surveyed managers were older than 40, with the majority ages 45 to 50. Only 5 percent were younger than 30. Studies looking at state employees in California and Texas identified similar patterns with the number of retirement-eligible knowledge workers rising exponentially in the last couple of years.

CIOs are asking questions about preserving institutional memory, as well as the recordkeeping practices that must form the foundation of a knowledge retention, management and dissemination program. They have to understand how things get done, the informal chains of command and process evolution.

Ultimately it's about recognizing human sources of knowledge on particular subject matters, because corporate memory is often ignored and rarely communicated through formal programs. Opportunities now exist for a CIO to act and develop a program to capture and articulate best practices while the owners of these knowledge resources are still accessible.

But problems abound. Knowledge in electronic formats -- in e-mail repositories, on users' desktops and network servers -- is often poorly captured during staff turnover, a change of administration or agency reorganization. Many government departments still have not established consistent programs for the capture, management and disposition of e-mail and other forms of electronic communication.

The ability to separate junk, spam and duplicates from information having long-term business, legal or historical value to the agency is critical to preserving worker knowledge. Though traditional electronic records systems can fill this need, too many have failed or garnered lukewarm success because of a disconnection from the business pressures and processes that create the context for records creation. Public-sector executives with the vision to plan for inevitable disruptions that occur during transitions will minimize continuity issues and loss of internal knowledge.

E-government initiatives have been under way for several years. Agencies at federal, state, provincial and municipal levels have been offering an increasing range of services available to businesses and residents through Web sites and citizen portals. Electronic communication between citizen and government -- the ability to submit applications and other forms, and ask routine questions through e-mail -- is also on the rise.

The rapid adoption of e-mail for both personal and business use by constituents has forced government managers to review their approaches to its collection, management and preservation. Government business owners must ensure that internal processes -- originally developed to manage the flow of stationery correspondence, contracts or application submissions -- can manage the same information when it arrives in electronic format.

This is a critical area where CIOs must take into account the pressures and requirements of personnel on the front line of citizen service. They need to view management of e-mail information requests in the context of its subject matter, and business and historical importance, not based on arbitrary storage capacity rules imposed by IT administrators.

Legislating Content

Legislation has also accelerated the dissemination of electronic information in the public sector. The 1996 amendments to the electronic Freedom of Information Act require federal agencies to proactively publish frequently requested records to an agency's reading room or Web site to reduce wait time for requests, as well as to conform to paperwork elimination targets. ECM tools have evolved to include components for Web publishing and Web content management that address policy pressures to push information, data and forms to the public in a consistent manner that complies with accessibility and open records guidelines.

Governments have faced transparency and openness challenges for decades. While the private sector has only recently been obligated to manage disclosures under new legislation such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, most Western jurisdictions have had some form of freedom of information legislation for years.

Electronic records, including e-mail, are subject to these laws within the parameters of specific exemption or exclusion clauses. As more information is created, stored and transmitted electronically, records management and indexing systems must conform to these access laws. To effectively manage a freedom of information compliance program, agencies need systems that can categorize, secure, redact and move electronic content through structured workflow approvals, with the ultimate goal of sharing the content with individuals outside the agency.

Current ECM frameworks provide all of this capability. By establishing an ECM infrastructure in which these electronic records can be captured, managed and screened for personal or sensitive information, CIOs can ensure agencies have appropriate control over restricted items.

Mobility, Privacy Challenges

Many jurisdictions are now investing in a mobile framework for knowledge workers who are no longer totally deskbound. Handheld electronic devices such as PDAs, smart phones and tablets are now replacing laptops and desktop PCs as the primary information conduit for inspectors, detectives, emergency services and caseworkers. CIOs responsible for developing a mobile, wireless strategy model need to fully understand the implications of such a cultural and business process change.

If the capture and control of even basic e-mail is a concern today, consider the issues when mobile computing and messaging devices are in the hands of government workers on the go. CIOs not only must assess the information management capacity of such solutions, they must also ensure the system lends itself to effective content management.

Mobile field workers need to have the same level of access to agency records repositories, intranets and portals as their deskbound colleagues. They need the ability to search for the correct versions of forms, as well as instantly submit field reports and other objects such as digital photographs to a centralized, easily accessible repository. Like their peers in the office, mobile workers also require workflow systems that can notify them of new tasks and of updates to key documents. They also must have the ability to view data collected by peers across geographic districts.

At the same time, CIOs must manage content in terms of privacy mandates. Several U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions are expanding personal privacy legislation to cover electronic records held by government agencies. The U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Canadian Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) are two of the more well known privacy bills. HIPAA outlines specific rights for the protection of personal medical and health records, while PIPEDA is intended to encourage electronic commerce by granting rights that protect and request personal information held by both public- and private-sector organizations.

These laws place increased burdens on government and private-sector organizations to ensure that personal data in electronic records, including e-mail, are not forwarded, published or disclosed inappropriately. The ability to restrict access to particular employees and flag such records as containing sensitive data is a critical requirement of building an ECM infrastructure. It helps to streamline these new compliance mandates while balancing the capture, retrieval and reuse requirements of end-users who need to process and respond to sensitive content.

Going Enterprise

Another problem for governments is the constant battle to develop operational efficiencies in the face of budget and program cutbacks. At both federal and state levels, CIOs are paying increased attention to enterprise architecture or shared service models of technology infrastructure. In many jurisdictions, CIOs are setting goals for establishing common network platforms, operating systems, e-mail systems and information management platforms.

A clear trend in government today is the centralization of core business processes such as procurement, social programs and basic citizen inquiries using single points of contact. The Canadian government's Records, Document and Information Management System initiative was one of the first large-scale ECM programs that looked at establishing a common document records management platform to manage office format, image and e-mail items.

Since the late 1990s, the Canadian government has pioneered in establishing best practices, deployment strategies and requirements definitions that are shared across various ministries and departments. Several provincial jurisdictions have recently followed suit, including Ontario, as well as state governments in Australia, and more recently, the United States.

Cost efficiencies can be easily realized when an agency focuses on supporting, maintaining and troubleshooting a smaller set of technology products. Developing skilled resources with technical and business process knowledge allows government administrators to use a deeper level of in-house expertise, as well as reusable templates, customizations and training techniques. An enterprise approach to technology platforms also allows government to negotiate more favorable support and licensing models with vendors, leverage license volume and allow for greater input into product direction.

When considering an investment in ECM technology, public-sector CIOs must be aware of the emerging best practices and lessons. Gartner recognizes that the balance is shifting, and that more requirements will be driven and required by business owners and end-users, pushing CIOs and agency leaders to adopt systems that meet needs aligned with enhancing citizen services, and less to pure technology preferences, according to the firm's report, Introducing the High-Performance Workplace: Improving Competitive Advantage and Employee Impact.

CIOs are responsible for ensuring technology decisions improve core functions of their agencies. Information overload exists in all sectors, but government has been on the forefront of understanding that data and documents are the lifeblood of public service activities, and the management, protection and appropriate usage of such information is central to most departments' activities.

Focusing less on traditional implementations of silo applications -- such as records, document imaging or Web content management -- and more on the specific needs of program owners is critical to enhancing government productivity. Using an ECM framework as a toolkit to deploy specific process and technology solutions is key to success. Correspondence and complaints response systems, case management, freedom of information discovery tools, minutes and bylaw publication -- these are the tangible citizen-centric business solutions to which ECM frameworks naturally lend themselves, and solutions to realistic challenges facing public-sector knowledge workers.

Agencies smoothly transitioning into an online citizen service model are those whose leaders are now looking at building ECM practices into a technology framework, specifically designed to facilitate information capture, management, sharing and security. Those organizations will be in the best position to meet the challenges of the retirement wave, the move to electronic services, and will achieve paramount value for their tax dollars.

Cheryl McKinnon  |  Special to Public CIO