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
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
- 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
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
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.
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:-
- Systems design and implementation
- 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.
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."
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 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.
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
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
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%
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.
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
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
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
- 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
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
- increasing use of specific technologies
with poor recordkeeping characteristics (eg computer based facsimile,
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
- 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
- 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
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.
Bearman, David (1993), "Recordkeeping
Systems", Archivaria, #36, p.16-36
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- 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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