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
within organizations today ... is one of defining the search scope, the search parameters, and documenting the procedure and the search parameters. That becomes an audit-ready function in itself. We're obligated and organizations are obligated to drive out the maximum amount of information that may be relevant to litigation exercises."
Since 1998, the Canadian government has worked on strategies to deal with the coming hordes of digital documents. Back then, the government contracted with Toronto-based Open Text to help create a new system for dealing with electronic records. Recently this contract was renewed. Open Text specializes in enterprise content management -- software designed to manage digital data across an enterprise.
"The government recently signed an enterprise contract with Open Text for the ongoing maintenance and support of its record document IM system, which has been available to departments since 1998," said Jirka Danek, director general of the Product Management Team from Public Works and Government Services Canada. "RDIMS, as we call it -- which stands for Record Document IM Systems -- is a suite of products composed of Open Text components specifically addressing the retention dispossession of electronic and paper information."
In use for more than a decade, the Open Text solution has grown and adapted to meet changing needs. Some of the significant changes recently have been giving employees the ability to apply tags to documents and store documents in a hosted data center.
"That solution goes back to 1998," Danek said. "But it's broadly implemented. Recently one thing we've done to help the various departments is we've created a centralized hosted environment -- consider it an electronic warehouse if you want -- where all the back-end tools are available for storage, classification, metadata tagging, searching and so on. It's stored in a data center for them, and the data is backed up for whatever length of time that is required."
The Canadian approach to records management may be a bit piecemeal. Such may be the nature of records management in the digital age. But because Canada has a more centralized government, there typically aren't 50 different solutions to the same problem. With governmentwide policies and training, as well as a long-term vendor partnership, the Canadian records-management strategy may be worth looking into, eh?