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by Lori Ashley

Transition to Electronic Government: Signs of the Time

This post from Lori Ashley provides a way to explore what the transition to electronic government means for records preservation.

January 22, 2020

In 2002, I accepted the position of Statewide Records and Forms Coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Electronic Government (DEG). The department had been created in 2001 to increase state government's focus on the role of technology in state programs and to accelerate the provision of services electronically to its customers and business partners.

DEG didn’t survive the 2003 change in administration and its core functions were re-absorbed back into the Department of Administration technology divisions. However, its brief existence was recognition and a sign of the times that digital information and online access requirements were transforming the way government operated and interacted with businesses and the public.

Today, digital information and communications technologies are ubiquitous in the public sector and every agency is engaged in e-government. Millions of government records are born-digital or transformed to electronic format daily, and many of these will have to survive numerous technology cycles and administration changes. A recent sign of the times was the December 31, 2019 deadline for federal agencies to manage all permanent electronic records appraised for eventual transfer and accessioning by NARA in an electronic format. Digital preservation – people, processes and technologies working together to ensure the long-term access to authentic, usable digital objects – is becoming a core records management requirement.

Last year I had many opportunities at conferences and professional meetings to hear about challenges records managers and archivists face. These range from training users to engaging with IT to adapting professional practices that ensure electronic records are adequately captured and managed to document evidence of business activities. And, of course, they struggle to keep up with evolving risks and technologies. This post provides a way to explore what the transition to electronic government means for records preservation.

Playing Catch Up

Use of digital technologies is often out ahead of the organizational controls needed to ensure efficient and comprehensive record keeping. Records and archives programs, like all government operations, are challenged by the ever-changing variety and velocity of digital objects to manage in compliance with mandates and missions.

One recent example of this “gap” appeared in the Government Technology article, “Texas Quietly Updates Records Laws to Include Personal Devices.” The state closed public records loopholes by extending authority over official communication on state employees’ personal devices. The new legislation extended laws that have always applied to paper-based documentation to electronic formats.

In the article, Daxton Stewart, a media law professor at Texas Christian University, explained the bill was “a recognition of what it’s like in the modern age and how people communicate, particularly our public officials, they have private devices and they can text on them, email on them, they might be using encrypted chat apps on them. If you’re doing any of those things, you need to be finding a way to document and keep those records for request.”

Records management practitioners understand that employees and contractors create official government records wherever and however they are conducting business. Although the capture and preservation methods may differ, the core principles and standards remain same. When business and information governance rules don’t keep up with technology, gaps and roadblocks to properly preserving and protecting government records are created.

Despite notable progress in electronic records management over the past few decades, most government records and archives practitioners that I meet feel inundated by the variety, volume, and the diversity of digital information assets. I hope that I can shed light on some of these challenges and share insights I have gathered from my encounters.

Call to Action

In 2017, I wrote a handout entitled “Why Digital Preservation Matters to Records Managers” for Preservica to distribute at the ARMA International conference. The piece included snippets from Gartner, an ISO standard, AIIM research, and The Sedona Conference Commentary on Information Governance to provide a rationale and motivation for Records Managers to take on digital preservation.

In 2020, I would like to revisit the piece and re-title it “Why Records Managers and Archivists are Essential to Digital Preservation.” Those on the front lines of government records management can have a decisive impact on ensuring the integrity, authenticity, and usability of permanent electronic records through their advocacy, education, audit, and custodial roles.

Where, when, and how can digital preservation capabilities become proactively integrated into routine records preservation practices? Regardless of whether permanent electronic government records are held in business applications, records repositories, or archives, they will require monitoring and active preservation to ensure they are future-proofed and can be readily found and rendered when needed in the future. In my next post, I’ll explore the use case of land records – a critical type of permanent government records – and share what I am learning about how practitioners are facing and addressing this preservation challenge.

Thanks for listening.

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