Provenance the Web Magazine

ISSN 1203-8954 - Vol.2, No.1 - December 1996

Electronic Recordkeeping in Western Australian Public Sector Agencies: An Assessment

by: The Public Recordkeeping Research Group, Edith Cowan University


This article describes a sector study of electronic recordkeeping in the WA public sector conducted by ECU's Electronic Recordkeeping Research Group. In 1994-95, the Group surveyed government recordkeeping to develop an overview of the extent of digital recordkeeping in the WA public sector, patterns of technology use, and agency awareness of issues in electronic recordkeeping, likely to impinge upon agency performance and accountability.

Contents

Introduction

Empirical studies in the impact of communications and information technology on records and archives management have mainly proceeded at firm or organizational level. Significant case studies of this kind have recently been conducted by the United Nations Administrative Coordinating Committee for Information Systems (1989) and T.K. Bikson and L.A. Law (1993), the latter forming a logical follow up to the earlier 1989 study. The Bikson and Law study examined practice in some thirty two member organizations of the United Nations concerning four main content areas related to problems of records management in an electronic information environment. Specifically, it examined:

  • the respective the roles of three electronic media--telex, facsimile, and electronic mail--in organizational information handling systems;
  • the properties of computer-based information exchange among organizations that have introduced electronic mail;
  • associated technology options and constraints, giving special attention to standards adopted or under consideration; and
  • policies, guidelines, training programs, and next steps United Nations organizations were taking with respect to electronic records management issues.

The aim of the study (Bikson and Law, 1993, p.126) was "to provide a picture of practices developing within the United Nations system for managing material prepared and exchanged electronically" and to review changes since an earlier (1988) study and the development of organizational guidelines for the management of electronic records which had grown from it. Survey methodology was cross sectional based on a questionnaire which was distributed to organisations.

In their assessment of survey outcomes, Bikson and Law (1993) were able to point to some progress in addressing issues in electronic records management. Compared with the 1988 study, for example, they found (1993, p.141) "much greater awareness of records management problems stemming from the proliferation of electronic information and communication media." But coincident with this change in attitude, the evidence gathered (1993, pp.141-142) pointed to a substantial increase in the magnitude of the problem:

"As the daily volume figures show, both e-mail and fax communications increased by several orders of magnitude in the last three years. These communication technologies became available to more people in more organizations; more extramural communication links were established; and users became accustomed to faster reply times and more iterations in conducting communication-based work. Further, the increasing number of functions carried out electronically made it hard to contend that none of the interchanges were of potential record value; on the other hand, the increased pace and volume of such interchanges made it difficult or impossible systematically to apply paper-based methods for records management."

An interesting question arising from the Bikson and Law study concerns the extent to which its findings can be generalised to a sector of an industry. After all, could not particular organizational cultural and other variables account for results and the value of this case in a general sense be limited? This question points to the value of a sector based approach, although some defects remain. For example, unless future expectations are captured, such a study is essentially an exercise in static analysis. In terms of information technology and the evolving theory of electronic recordkeeping, where we expect to be with respect to a benchmark time is arguably of greater importance in developing strategy and tactics, than where we are currently or have been in the near past.

Addressing issues in the inherent limitations of the static analysis and approach, the Electronic Recordkeeping Research Group at Edith Cowan University concluded that the activity of empirical analysis of industry trends in the use of information technology in organizations is an important one, forming the foundation of trend analysis which is vital to the planning and development electronic recordkeeping and electronic records management policy, tactics, standards and procedures. In its empirical study, the Group aimed to complement rather than duplicate existing empirical studies by using a sector approach and attempting to measure expectations.

The Group selected government as the subject of its sector study for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Group was able to establish access to a contact database of government agencies maintained by the Records Management Office of Western Australia which described a subset of some one hundred and fifty six government agencies which had participated in similar surveys and other RMO sponsored records management activity. Access to a substantial database is essential in a sector study where the response rate may significantly affect the statistical reliability and validity of results. Secondly, recent case studies in the nexus between government accountability and recordkeeping have indicated a decline in accountability, ceteris paribus, where digital communications and information technologies are deployed without regard for the capture and maintenance of electronic evidence. An important study of this kind is David Bearman's (1993) account of the significance of the PROFS affair, but the theme is a recurring one to be found in the work of Eastwood (1989) and others. In the big picture, as Emy and Hughes (1991, p.351) put the accountability dilemma for government in the following terms:-

"The whole issue of accountability is a crucial one for the liberal democratic state because loss of accountability strikes at the basic theoretical justification offered for this kind of polity. The legitimacy of such a state is closely related to its claim to be able to control the exercise of power effectively by legal and rational (or constitutional) means. Loss of accountability implies loss of democratic control over those in charge of the coercive powers of the state. If the special goal of nineteenth century radicals was to broaden the franchise and create representative democracy, the equivalent problem in the later twentieth century is to devise more effective systems of accountability in the face of growing executive and administrative powers."

Research hypothesis

The idea of recordkeeping policy and practice as dependent variables in government accountability formed a cornerstone of the Group's research hypothesis. This hypothesis was constructed around a systems model of the so-called Westminster system which furnishes the arrangements for the conduct of government in Western Australia. Systems theory modelling of how accountability is intended to work in the Westminster System can be represented diagrammatically in the following way:-


The systems model of accountability described here is a specific application of a model applicable to almost any liberal democratic government. Of course, inputs to the system such as systems of government and machinery of government differ between sovereign nations and jurisdictions. Processes of accountability also differ. For example, in the United States ministerial responsibility is not a feature of arrangements for government. Implicit in the model is the assumption that people make rational decisions based on perfect information. In the real world, however, people might make irrational decisions or have imperfect information available to them. Focussing on the issue of information, we can see that virtually all the processes of accountability depend upon accurate, reliable and authentic information. For example:-

  • when citizens vote at an election, the systems model assumes that citizens have access to accurate, reliable and authentic information about the performance of government;
  • when we seek individual redress under law, accurate, reliable and authentic information about why governments make decisions must be available for adjudication if this process is to be fair; and
  • when Congress or Parliament scrutinises the conduct of administrations and governments, the effectiveness of this process also depends upon accurate, reliable and authentic information about the performance of government.

These propositions about the nature of accountability and its relationship with information and recordkeeping suggest that changes in information technology which impact negatively upon the value of public records as evidence, require specific agency responses. According to Bearman (1993) transition to digital communications and information technologies is one such change. Bearman (1993) describes the features of electronic information systems which sit incompatibly with the requirements for capturing and maintaining electronic evidence and posits the notion of the functional requirements for recordkeeping which agencies must adopt as effective counter measures. He translates these requirements into four discrete tactics based on policy, systems design and implementation, procedure and the pursuit of standards. A corollary to Bearman's work is to regard these four elements of tactics as independent variables in agency recordkeeping and hence accountability.

Working from the notion of Bearman's tactics as independent variables in recordkeeping the Group devised a factor discrimination test for electronic recordkeeping in WA Public sector agencies. The working hypothesis became:-

WA Public Sector Agencies that address accountability issues in electronic recordkeeping have appropriate, implemented and observable policies, practices, processes and philosophies.

The sector study would provide baseline data on progress made in the adoption of appropriate tactics. On the completion of evaluation, the Group also aimed to have in place a sector wide profile of agency activity based on the independent variable data and sufficient information about the information technology environments of agencies, to enable a smaller group of agencies to be identified for more in depth study through focus groups, and ultimately in a further phase of the project, the selection of a partner for a collaborative research project. The Group also hope that trend analysis in the adoption of digital information technologies would suggest macro approaches to the problem of ensuring electronic evidence.

Study method

The sector study was undertaken with a questionnaire distributed to some one hundred and fifty six WA public sector agencies. Information Technology (IT) Managers in these agencies were targeted as respondents. The questionnaire was designed to gather data based on the four independent variables:-

  1. Policy
  2. Systems design and implementation
  3. Standards
  4. Guidelines and procedures

There is of course no a priori or in principle correct mix of tactics appropriate across all agencies. Rather, the mix is context dependent.

Policy

A significant literature exists concerning the application of policy as a tactic in electronic recordkeeping. For example, Rob-Smith Roberts (1993) describes the importance of agency wide policy level endorsement of data management principles, as an element of tactics in electronic archives management. Policy may also be defined less globally eg for specific information systems, technologies and tasks. The study attempted to assess the incidence of specific policy (and procedure) for:-

  • life cycle management of data created on mainframes, network file servers and PC's (including retention and disposal);
  • management of data exchanged between offices and agencies; and
  • life cycle management of data created with applications such as e-mail, voice mail etc.

Systems design and implementation

Systems design and implementation must explicitly address Bearman's functional requirements for recordkeeping to ensure electronic evidence. Systems design and implementation requirements are application or systems specific. In Managing Electronic Mail, Bearman outlines features of a systems design and implementation approach for managing electronic mail in a manner which fulfils the functional requirements for recordkeeping. According to Bearman (1994, p.35)

"Strategies for management of electronic records depend on understanding the opportunity presented by the layering of software (the OSE model) and hardware (in distributed systems architectures). Each layer of the software represents a location at which a fundamental functional requirement could be satisfied, and every interface between hardware components is a 'switch' across which communications must flow.

Technical aspects of the systems environment may provide reasons to address those functional requirements being satisfied through systems design or implementation at particular layers in the software or hardware architecture. Characteristics of the functional requirement or of the technical architecture could lead us to choose to satisfy one requirement through the user interface layer, another through modification to the application software, a third at the operating system of API layer, and a fourth at the front end to corporate records storage."

Standards

The pursuit of standards is an important design and implementation tactic in electronic recordkeeping. A range of standards exist of potential significance in electronic recordkeeping, including communications (eg x.400/500), metadata (IRDS) and document management related standards (SGML, PDF etc). Major drawbacks in the pursuit of standards as a tactic derive from their IT specific nature and relative under supply.

Standards are under supplied in the market because they are public goods, meaning that an organization which has invested in their development is unable to wholly appropriate the benefits of this investment. Additionally, IT culture itself has historically emphasized the redundancy of standards and the extent to which their imposition acts to retard the development of computer based information systems and networks. A counter veiling influence has arisen from changes in the technological trajectory of computing since the 1980s. These changes have emphasised the importance of networks and interoperability. Organizational commitment to open systems and other standards can also be regarded as an independent variable in recordkeeping.

Guidelines and procedures

Work process related agency rules and procedures significantly determine whether an agency is recordkeeping compliant. For example, if an agency has implemented a corporate store for record information, its effectiveness will be significantly determined by user rules and procedures which prescribe use of the store for corporate recordkeeping. Where client server e-mail is in use, e-mail specific guidelines will be in use which account for the greater control exercised by users and the decreased retrievability of information.

Study response

Of the one hundred and fifty six questionnaires dispatched in the survey, eighty useable responses were obtained involving a response rate of fifty two per cent. The response rate for similar (voluntary) studies is usually in the range thirty to forty per cent. Under the circumstances - questionnaires being distributed during mid December before the holiday period, voluntary nature of the study, short response time frame and possible outdated database information, the obtained response rate is assessed as very good. The number of useable questionnaires exceeded the minimum number required thirty for (statistical) reliability and validity of results. Analysis of the survey data has not been completed, but some aggregation and analysis has been performed.

Policy

Respondents were requested to indicate if a whole-of-agency data management policy existed and, if so, to provide a copy for further analysis. A total of only eleven agencies returned policy statements to the group, representing 7% of the surveyed group.

Of the eleven statements submitted

  • ten statements dealt with issues in data security, network security and data privacy;
  • one contained elements of metadata description of agency systems;
  • one included procedural instructions for record material contained in e-mail;
  • two enunciated the principle of corporate ownership of data held on agency systems; and
  • five set down procedures in disaster recovery.

Analysis

The requirement for whole-of-agency data management policy seems poorly understood by surveyed agencies. Only one document could be said to consist of a 'policy only' document -most documents confused policy with procedure. Of the data management principles discussed by Rob-Smith Roberts (1993), only the security and privacy of data, has been the subject of policy formulation. Policy implementation shows few concessions to the functional requirements for electronic recordkeeping. Data security, network security and privacy are the main concerns of the 7% of agencies which have policies. The low level of agency compliance and restrictive interpretations of policy indicate that efforts to date to instil awareness of the need to endorse recordkeeping principles at whole of agency policy level have made no impact.

A slightly more encouraging position exists at the systems, technology specific level as Graph 1.0 illustrates:-

1.0- System specific data management policy

Approximately 56% of agencies considered that they had systems specific data management policies. No attempt was made to evaluate specific instances of systems level data management policy. For example, while 51% of agencies indicated that they routinely backed up e-mail, the efficacy of such policy could not be determined. A similar observation applies to the retention of data, where 53% have specific instance policy applicable to systems. Employing systems backup as an elementary index of systems level data management policy development, a conclusion is that policy is more highly developed at mainframe and server level, than for workstations. New technologies such as videoconferencing have not been the subject of policy formulation. Electronic data interchange between offices and agencies has been the subject of formulation in about 40% of agencies and data produced by officers 'in the field' has been the subject of formulation in only 20% of agencies.

Patterns in technology use

Graph 2.0 describes communications and information technologies in use in surveyed agencies. The survey also attempted to measure technology acquisition intentions over the forthcoming year.

2.0 Technologies in use

Extent of technology use (how many people use a technology) was measured relative to agency population. Graph 2.1 depicts the percent access rates of staff within the responding agencies to the mentioned facilities:-

2.1 Access to technologies

Analysis

Survey data reveals an implementation trend toward technologies with poor recordkeeping characteristics as preferred technologies. Importantly:-

  • coverage of E-mail is by far the most wide reaching, with 41% of surveyed agencies supporting E-mail access for 76-100% of employees. A total of 10% of agencies surveyed expected to acquire E-mail over the next twelve months. Electronic mail poses a variety of control problems for organizations, concerning virtually all phases of the document life cycle. These problems concern authenticity, reliability, accessibility and disposition. In brief current generation electronic mail systems do not create electronic evidence;
  • some 80% of agencies are already making use of computer based fax facilities. Availability however is limited, with only 4% of agencies reporting coverage of between 26% and 50% of agency population. Only 8% of agencies reported 76-100% coverage. Expectations were interesting with 14% of agencies expecting to acquire this technology sometime over the next twelve months. Since current generation computer based facsimile produces 'dumb' documents, the expansionary trend in this technology is a potentially a major concern to electronic records managers.

Hardware and networks

Agencies can have data processing cultures broadly categorisable as centralised, decentralised or somewhere in between. The survey attempted to determine agency culture through the indices of:-

  • number of dumb terminals linked to a Mainframe/Minicomputers (ranged from 0 to 1000). The mean value was 70 terminals.
  • number of Stand-alone PCs/Workstations (ranged from 0 to 10,000). The mean value was 186 stand-alones.
  • number of Networked PCs/Workstations (ranged from 0 to 3,000). The mean value was 259 networked PCs.

The data gathered suggests centralised cultures in some agencies, but more typically decentralised information processing involving combinations of LANs', WAN's and stand alone PC's. Distributed information processing enhances business efficiency, but can create problems of accessibility. Maximum distribution of data occurs in client/server implementations where control is further diminished by work station level processing. Client server technology also carries security related risk. The overall picture presented at a technology level is of distributed information processing involving substantial use of local area networks and significant populations of stand alone PC's.

This picture is confirmed by survey data gathered about local and wide area connectivity. The number of LANs in use ranged from 0 to 60, with a mean value of 5. The number of responding agencies claiming to have implemented connectivity between LANs was 72% (28% do not). The number of wide area networks in the responding organizations varied from 0 to 240 with a mean value of 7. Sixty seven per cent of agencies claimed to have implemented connectivity, 33% indicated that at the time of survey they had not.

Another index of connectivity can be found in the ratio of stand alone PCs to networked PCs and work stations. Forty four per cent of agencies reported no stand-alone machines. In 10% of agencies the number of stand-alones exceeded the number of networked machines. Overall, the evidence suggests that connectivity is high, a systems implementation feature which is recordkeeping benign.

The survey also attempted to measure the incidence of electronic data interchange (EDI). The group felt the need to concisely define EDI to obtain a meaningful result. This explanation was embodied in the question proper, to avoid problems associated with glossary definitions. EDI was defined in terms of 'electronic data and/or documents exchanged with other agencies either via networks, dial up communications, transfer of discs or other electronic media.' Of the responding agencies almost 73% indicated that they exchange data with other agencies. The majority of these agencies (48%) indicated that they exchange data with other Government agencies only. A total of 9% of agencies exchange data with non-government agencies. The substantial positive response exceeded expectations. Since the study did not discriminate data interchange by application, the substantial positve response may be attributable to the inclusion of E-mail by respondents.

Work practices, guidelines and procedures

Policy and practice implementations are closely related. Sharing data depends upon open systems connectivity. In networks, inter-connectivity between LAN's and WAN's is vital to sharing and hence the accessibility of record information. Large, distributed agencies in which the most common form of information system is a stand alone PC, cannot readily share information and experience problems with the accessibility of record information.

The survey examined a number of work practice, guideline and procedure related issues including:-

  • procedures and guidelines for the backing up and retention of data (51% and 53% of agencies respectively, indicated that these were areas of policy formulation, but the invitation to submit guidelines and procedure statements drew a fragmentary response);
  • procedures for external access (73% of responding agencies indicated that they exchange data with external government and non-government agencies, but only 59% were able to point to documented policies and procedures);
  • the use of data stores. Corporate data stores on networks form depositories for record information. Data stores define a locus of corporate memory, and form an implementation strategy in Electronic recordkeeping compliant agencies. Rules and guide-lines for the management of documents held in data stores form process and procedure based implementations. However, how a data store is defined is critical and the survey positive response of 67% has been discarded. Further exploration of the use of data stores will require cross correlational checking for concept understanding.
  • at document level implementation, practice and procedure stress the importance of inter-operability, standards eg in relation to mark-up and portability. Electronic document management clients might also be used to improve information retrieval for electronic documents, and hence assist an organisation to 'know' its data. However, the survey found that only 37% of agencies employed any kind of EDM package. An EDM package was defined as

Conclusion

Survey data gathered as a consequence of this project suggest that Bikson and Law's (1993) findings are essentially generalisable from one agency to an industry sector, in this case government. The sector wide profile which emerges from the study encompasses:

  • highly distributed information processing environments in most agencies involving multiple networks and stand-alone PC's;
  • a strong sector wide trend in the direction of networks (44% of agencies have no non-networked machines);
  • increasing use of specific technologies with poor recordkeeping characteristics (eg computer based facsimile, E-mail etc).

Independent variable related activity based on tactics which ensure evidence and accountability overall is minimal, suggesting low agency awareness of issues in electronic recordkeeping. For example:-

  • most whole organization policy documents incompletely address issues in data management for evidence and accountability systems, technology or task specific policy and procedures are not uniform in agencies. Policy and procedures concerning retention and disposal of data, and data exchange between agencies has been laid down in less than half of the agencies surveyed;

  • more than half of the surveyed agencies employed no EDM software packages.

As a consequence of the study, a smaller group of agencies were identified with complex, highly distributed information processing systems and these were targeted for further study via the focus group method.

Expectations data suggests that rates of new technology acquisition are likely to pose fundamental problems for policy makers, archivists, records managers and other interested professionals (eg auditors). For example, an additional 10% of surveyed agencies expected to acquire E-mail in the forthcoming year. Computer based facsimile can be expected to grow by 14% across the installed user base over the forthcoming year, according to survey data. The rate of new technology acquisition is all the more concerning because of the 'proprietary' and 'closed' nature of documents created by some of these technologies (eg E-mail, computer based facsimile).

If the data is instructive in describing the threat environment within which recordkeepers must work in this sector, it is equally insightful in terms of the opportunity environment. For example, on a technology level:-

  • the sector wide trend towards networks describes a rapidly emerging environment in which loci of intervention (eg network file servers, communications nodes) are being created;
  • the current emphasis on networks and interconnection is likely to entrench open systems approaches in information systems planning. If recordkeepers and their advocates can become meaningfully involved in open systems forums, they can influence the design of standards in ways which reflect their interests; and
  • the proliferation of proprietary and closed technologies at document level suggest the importance of document standards such as SGML and PDF (the former long advocated by electronic recordkeepers as a document standard). These document standards are likely to fulfil a clear organizational need, a need which dovetails with the interests of recordkeeping.

In general terms, the opportunity environment for recordkeepers at a technology level has been defined by changes in the technological trajectory of computing since the 1980s, which have emphasised the importance of:

  • network connectivity;
  • open systems;
  • multimedia; and
  • convergence with communications technologies.

Of course, technology is only one element of tactics recordkeepers need to bring to bear on their job. In regulatory terms, the requirement to ensure accountability of government and public sector management in a rapidly changing technology environment also defines a sector specific opportunity. However, to exploit such an opportunity, recordkeepers will need to understand how public policy is formed and intervene appropriately in the political process. In this sense the professional response to the PROFS affair, is a case study in failure from which we can all learn. An important lesson is that electronic evidence is not only technology, but culturally determined. While the technology environment may be propitious for securing recordkeeping related goals, what technology produces is significantly shaped by what society, organizations and individuals demand of it. Recordkeepers and their advocates must therefore have a firm grasp of tactics and levers in a wider social and political context, if electronic evidence is to be assured.

REFERENCES:

Bearman, David (1993), "Recordkeeping Systems", Archivaria, #36, p.16-36

Bearman, David (1993) The Implications of Armstrong v. The Executive Office of the President for the Archival Management of Electronic Records. In The American Archivist vol.56 no.4 pp.674-689

Bikson, T. K. and S.A. Law (1993), Electronic Information Media and Records Management Methods: A Survey of Practices in UN Organizations, Information Society, vol.9# 2, p.125-44

Eastwood, Terence M. (1989) Reflections on the Development of Archives in Canada and Australia. In Papers and Proceedings of the 7th Biennial Conference of the AustralianSociety of Archivists, Inc. Hobart 2-6 June 1989.Hobart, Tasmania. Australian Society of Archivists Biennial Conference. pp.76-81

Emy, Hugh V. and Hughes, Owen E. (1991) Australian Politics: Realities in Conflict. 2nd Ed. South Melbourne. MacMillan Co. of Australia Pty Ltd.

McDonald, John (1993), Managing Information in an Office Systems Environment - The IMOSA Project, in Information Handling in Offices and Archives, ed. Angelika Menne-Haritz (New York, K.G.Saur) p.138-151

Smith-Roberts, Rob (1993) Saving the Important Bits for Later: Data Management Principles and Metadata. In Managing Electronic Records: Papers from a Workshop on Managing Electronic Records of Archival Value. Edited by Dagmar Parer and Ron Terry. Sydney. Australian Council of Archives Incorporated and Australian Society of Archivists Incorporated. pp. 68-86

United Nations Administrative Coordinating Committee for Information Systems(1989), Management of Electronic Records: Issues and Guidelines (New York, United Nations)

Wilson, V. and others .(1995). Investigating Electronic Recordkeeping in Western Australian Public Sector Agencies. Informaa Quarterly. November, 1995.

END NOTES:

This article is reprinted with permission of the Edith Cowan Universiy (ECU) Electronic Recordkeeping Research Group

© Brogan, M., Anderson, K. and Wilson, V. (1996) Electronic Recordkeeping in Western Australian Public Sector Agencies: An Assessment. In Provenance: The Web Magazine. vol 2. no.1 December 1996.


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