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
as electronic records that must be stored and made discoverable. Robinson and Webster said they would like to treat IM conversations similarly to e-mail. Washington is working with Symantec to deploy an IM logging application using the company's IM archiving software.
Of all the nightmare scenarios that may befall a public agency, becoming entangled in litigation surely ranks high on the list of ones to avoid. One purpose of Washington's vault system is to help state agencies comply when an e-discovery request is made. If an agency is involved in a civil suit, for example, it would likely be required to produce at least some documentation. If that requested document is electronic, agencies must be able to search their archives and find it quickly.
In 2006, the U.S. government tried to help minimize confusion about e-discovery by amending the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The revision outlines what constitutes an electronic document. The rules now cover most modern electronic documents, including e-mails, Web sites, IM chats, Microsoft Office documents, etc. Though it pertains only to civil cases, many government agencies use the amended rules as a foundation to build electronic document standards.
"[The amended rules] were one of the factors we gave consideration to," Robinson said. "We wanted to have a way where we could ensure we were being responsive to those federal rules, and have a common way that can be used by all state agencies to be responsive to the federal rules."
The best way to comply with e-discovery is to build a system that stores data so it is easily searchable. Anyone can pile a terabyte of data onto a disc. The real challenge is quickly finding the one or two important data sets you need. For that, building in a contextual search feature is a crucial part of the plan for the Washington vault system. Though not yet built out, Robinson and Webster have designs ready for the search feature.
"Another task that we're proceeding with now is having a solicitation issued for a contextual search engine that we can layer over the electronic records vault system so we can have the ability to do the contextual search," Robinson said. "The goal with the contextual search engine is to ensure we are identifying the records that are responsive to an agency's business need, public records request or an e-discovery request."
Another uncertainty agencies face is how long to store electronic documents. Washington state agencies worked with the Secretary of State's Office to develop data-retention schedules. Records needed for daily operations will be stored by the new vaulting service; the rest will be shipped to the Secretary of State's digital archiving service. Washington's contextual search engine can search both repositories in case of an e-discovery request.
At press time, three state agencies were using the vault, essentially to beta test the system. Webster, who wouldn't name the early adopters, said a number of other agencies are interested in the service. The e-mail portion of the vaulting system was scheduled to go live in February 2008, she added.
"We have our three classified early adopter agencies that are actually working with the solution right now and doing the testing," she said. "There's some business work that is done with agencies to prepare themselves for going into the tool. Right now we're going live with agencies the first part of February, and we've got the schedule right on down the line to start bringing agencies on as they're ready to come on board."