What a striking irony it is that government at all levels must grapple with how to properly manage electronic documents. After all, it wasn't so long ago this magazine heralded the inevitable age of the paperless office, a utopia wherein the burden of tangible documents would be banished and replaced by virtual memos and electronic mail.

Back in those days of optimism, it seems no one gave much thought to what exactly an office was supposed to do with its electronic documents. Despite the cliché, we all know nothing really ends up in the ether. Instead, many electronic documents end up on a forgotten hard drive or server, dutifully wasting space.

Most government IT shops are well aware that they must get a handle on electronic records management. In addition, the issues of e-discovery and public records put added pressure on agencies to effectively manage electronic records and make them easily discoverable. Unfortunately there is no single solution that satisfies everyone. However, Washington state CIO Gary Robinson and Department of Information Services (DIS) Assistant Director Cammy Webster are working on a centralized records vault that may serve as a model for others confronting this challenge.

Opening the Vault

Like other CIOs, Robinson recognizes the central challenges of managing electronic documents. In general, large volumes of differently formatted data need to be stored on a platform that encourages interoperability and makes data easily searchable and discoverable.

In Washington state, the DIS is the central provider of computing, telecommunications and Internet services -- a tremendous amount of data. About a year and a half ago, after securing $1.8 million from the state Legislature, Robinson and Webster began looking at ways to better handle electronic records, in terms of storage and retrieval.

"We decided it would be really beneficial for us to move forward with a common storage system for electronic records, particularly e-mail records," Robinson said. "We have been trying to get our focus on doing this in a shared, common way. I should point out Gov. [Chris] Gregoire had asked our department to work in conjunction with other agencies in ensuring that we can be responsive to public records requests when the requester has the desire to receive them in an electronic format. That really builds upon this service initiative."

The Washington records vault will, it is hoped, manage all electronic documents pertaining to the day-to-day operations of state agencies. The system will use two of Symantec's Enterprise Vault products: Mailbox Archiving for Microsoft Exchange as well as the Journaling and Discovery Accelerator. The system is being built in stages; the first stage will manage e-mail, the most prolific source of electronic records.

"We are then following up with even more searchable tools that we're going to put on, so that you can do what they refer to as a contextual search -- you can enter more information, not just a word search," Webster said. "It's more knowledge on how you do your search, and it will assist agencies with getting better searching on the records that are in the vault."

But the project doesn't end there. Webster said plans include expanding beyond e-mail to other kinds of electronic documents, including PDF, PowerPoint, and audio and video files. Multiple document formats make for an interesting wrinkle in electronic records management. Among states, there is no agreed-upon strategy for enterprisewide document management. What's more, there isn't even agreement about what an agency or government should consider an electronic document. For some, it could be anything from e-mail to voicemail to cell phone video. For others, it may only be some of those.

One of the most vexing problems for agencies is instant messaging (IM). More often, employees are communicating via an IM client, causing some to wonder if IMs qualify

Chad Vander Veen  |  Editor, FutureStructure

Chad Vander Veen is the editor of FutureStructure.com