Northern Exposure Canada Creates Comprehensive Records Management Strategy Ottawa, Ontario

We as a society may never entirely escape the crinkly clutches of paper, but we are converting more of it to digital format. More importantly, we are also creating many more documents today that are born digital. As such, records management is an issue of growing prominence and mounting concern.

Every public-sector agency should be thinking about a records management strategy -- at the very least making plans to handle e-discovery requests. As daunting a task as making sense of thousands of unstructured digital documents may seem, you are not alone. Records management is a challenge governments around the world must confront, including our neighbors to the north.

Docs, Docs, Docs

The Canadian federal government is more centralized than the United States. As a result, Canada is better positioned to roll out policies and procedures that are implemented across the board. In the United States, states govern themselves to a higher degree than Canada's provinces. Though still a federation, Canada's government is structured similarly to the United Kingdom, in which power is largely consolidated at the federal level.

Document management is one area where greater centralization may be an advantage. In Ottawa, government officials have been working hard on a national strategy for managing electronic documents. The cornerstone of the strategy is documenting how to manage digital records and disseminate that information -- and the associated training -- to all government employees, according to Stephen Walker, senior director of information management strategies for the Chief Information Officer Branch from the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.

Already, Walker said, federal employees are being trained on what Canadians call information management, or IM -- not to be confused with instant messaging.

"First of all, there's a document, which has already been published and departments are responsible for implementing, which is on roles and responsibilities for IM specifically," he said. "It speaks to what every individual level of employee within a given organization is responsible for respective of IM. There's a new document to be delivered this fall called IM Basics, which again, breaks down those rules of responsibilities to the day-to-day operational requirements for every government in the country."

Accompanying the documentation is a government-backed training and development program, which educates employees on IM, with additional training for task-specific agencies and agency managers.

Training and documented policies are good, right? But how do such policies get set, and who decides what kind of training employees ought to have? Walker said the federal government has been working with provincial governments and the Public Service CIO Council -- a body made up of CIOs from the federal and provincial level -- to determine the best way to train employees on IM.

But training employees on IM can be difficult for the same reason so many U.S. agencies struggle with technology projects -- it's often more difficult to change people than to change hardware.

"Today we're still dealing with challenges associated with independent models and solutions that have been defined by independent organizations that are still transitioning toward a common framework for record keeping," Walker explained. That's a polite way of saying everyone is still doing their own thing and until everyone is on the same page, no amount of policies and training will help Canada better manage its electronic documents. Walker said the long-term strategy is to instate a director of record keeping. But until then, the unstructured nature of electronic documents will continue to cause headaches.

"It certainly creates other challenges for IM. As you know, we are not able to get rid of anything. Things do pile up," Walker said. Meaning in e-discovery cases, agencies must be certain their mountains of digital data can be quickly sorted through. "From an e-discovery perspective, the practice

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.