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A new survey shows government workers still struggle to manage electronic documents.

by / September 7, 2006

Despite years afloat in a digital sea, government workers say that when it comes to managing their documents, they cling to familiar shores. If it's important, they want a paper copy.

"There has been a revolution in the whole nature of documentation and communication, and they are still in catch-up mode right now," said John Mancini, president of the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM).

In an AIIM study released Aug. 15, 2006, more than 700 organizations, including 128 state and local government agencies, weighed in on their ability to meet diverse regulatory compliance issues using both paper and electronic means.

The results show a stark gap in how state and local governments manage paper versus electronic records.

Managing Compliance
Nearly 55 percent of respondents said their paper invoices are completely under control. Fifty percent said purchase orders are completely under control. By comparison, 10.9 percent said they had e-mail management completely under control, and only 14.5 percent felt similarly confident about their management of electronic forms, according to the survey Compliance: It's Real, It's Relevant and It's More Than Just Records.

At stake is not just a matter of good filing practices. Rather, the survey looked specifically at compliance issues -- the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and a range of other regulatory matters including diverse state requirements.

The very diversity of these requirements could make it hard for government offices to create and implement coherent and enforceable rules in the realm of electronic records management.

"You have so many different layers of government," Mancini said. "It's difficult to come up with a 'one size fits all' in terms of policies and procedures, approaches and strategies."

Proceeding With Caution
At the same time, there are good reasons for government employees to be nervous as they take tentative steps toward the electronic management of important documents.

"Particularly in a government setting, the things you do are very visible, and so people have legitimate concerns about taking wrong steps," Mancini said, adding that these concerns are a powerful incentive to stay with paper.

Those who do hold back are most likely to shy away from more recent technologies. When asked about personal phones, BlackBerries and PDAs, 41.5 percent of the survey's respondents described their information management efforts as "complete chaos." By comparison, nearly 25 percent of the respondents rated their e-mail environment similarly, most likely because of the sheer volume of the medium.

This in turn speaks to the very heart of the document-compliance issue: What, exactly, are state and local governments supposed to be saving? Mancini approaches it first by drawing a line between managing and merely keeping.

There are "e-records " -- digital documents that carry specific import for the enterprise. In some cases, there may be a legal mandate to keep these records; in other cases, these electronic documents could protect a company or government agency from future liability. This information needs protecting.

Then there is "e-information" -- the sheer bulk of digital communication generated within the organization. The most obvious example is e-mail, but there's also electronic billing, digital accounts receivable, images, logos and data posted to the Web site.

Does all of this data have to be kept? How long must agencies keep it? And how easy should it be to retrieve?

Here, corporate policy clashes with technological ability, and in many cases there's no one around to bridge the gap. "The piece that usually is neglected is the training piece," Mancini said. "People implement the technology, but they underestimate the soft cost of making the technology do what it is supposed to do."

To ensure that training takes place, Mancini said, it's necessary to take a step back and understand who is responsible for the implementation of electronic record-keeping. If things are being done right, the answer will be: No one person or department.

Because so many varieties of records exist in so many areas throughout an enterprise, their management must be a communal exercise.

Records management professionals typically have ruled this arena. Now upper management must step in at the policy level to ensure that regulatory demands are satisfied.

"If your organization doesn't have an effective strategy toward managing its information," Mancini said, "you have basically taken a key asset, and you've decided to throw up your hands and not manage that."

For IT professionals, all this amounts to a new way of viewing document management, a mode that reaches beyond standard IT practice to involve the technical professional throughout the entire management process. "This isn't just a traditional IT issue. It isn't just a question of how much storage costs," Mancini said. "It's a cultural issue. It's a policy issue. It's a procedures issue, and IT will have to be a part of all of that."

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Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide. 

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