Research Issues in Australian Approaches to Policy Development
Electronic Records Meeting
May 29, 1997
In this paper Greg O'Shea draws on his experience developing Electronic Records (and more recently) Recordkeeping policies for whole of Government consumption in Australia. The institution for which he works, the Australian Archives, is the archival authority for the Australian Federal Government administration.
It is difficult to determine precisely what the unresolved issues might be given that we all represent different environments. For example, the unresolved issues in Australia may be different from the unresolved issues in the UK. Even in Australia, what I may understand to be a resolved issue, may get me into an argument with the people who are still arguing about defining electronic records.
The stated objective of the workshop requires us to:
Just as we may have differing views about what is resolved and unresolved, so we might have a variety of feelings about what the issue is. Some readers may be well thinking, 'this is not the appropriate place to re-consider the meaning of life, we know what the issue is, let's get on with it' ! Given the contents of this paper it is central to my argument that I indicate my view of what I see as THE issue is as it may differ from some of your assumptions about what it might be.
I am certainly not the first person to say this but it is something I say often:
None of the issues which have been raised on the management of electronic records are insurmountable or even difficult from a technological viewpoint. The technology is there to develop electronic recordkeeping systems, the technology is there to capture and maintain electronic records, the technology is there to enable access over time. The technology is there to enable recordkeeping at a level of sophistication and accuracy hitherto undreamt of. To achieve our goal though requires more than technology, remember that is part of the problem. To achieve our goal requires human understanding, planning, input and motivation and that requires us to convince others that it is worth doing.
This view has a significant impact on the development of research agendas and implementation projects.
This is not to say that technology is not an issue. It clearly is an issue, otherwise we wouldn't be holding meetings such as these, but it is not the issue. The issue is also not, I might add, solely electronic records. While the conference is designed to focus on electronic records, the fact is many records aren't and probably won't be for some time.
The issue for me therefore is the development of a strategic approach to recordkeeping, whether it be in Society generally, whole of Government, or in your own corporate environment. The wider focus should be on the development of recordkeeping systems, and specifically electronic recordkeeping systems. Without such a strategic approach I believe our efforts on electronic records will largely be doomed to failure.
Looking at electronic records from a strategic recordkeeping perspective requires us to see beyond the specific technology issues toward the wider corporate issues, within our organisational, professional and environmental sectors. In summary they are:
Archival institutions and archivists alone cannot deal with electronic records, or electronic recordkeeping or recordkeeping generally any more than any other institution can. As a consequence alliances have to be built, lobbying has to occur, consortia have to be formed to promote the records agenda.
We have to influence recordkeeping practices in order to influence the creation and management of electronic records
Taking such a strategic position will move us beyond our traditional boundaries into largely uncharted waters but it has to be done. We also have to recognise that we don't even have universal acceptance of the need for change or even that we have a major problem.
We've made some progress on this in my own environment..........
Australian Records Management Standard AS 4390 is a cross sectoral initiative involving various levels of Government and private enterprise working together. The standard provides details on the development and implementation of recordkeeping systems and stands as an objective code of best practice for utilisation in both Government and non-Government sectors.
Corporate Memory in the Electronic Age: Statement of a Common Position on Electronic Recordkeeping is another example of cross sectoral cooperation. Indeed it includes arguably the first Declaration of Interdependence in history, acknowledging the broad range of disciplines and managerial support required to successfully deal with electronic recordkeeping.
Whole of Government Shared Systems Initiative on Records Management Software Products. The involvement by the Australian Archives in this Government IT initiative to standardise software procurement for RMS Software has meant enshrinement of recordkeeping capability in the selection and evaluation criteria and a move toward collective agreement on an integrated electronic recordkeeping solution.
These are examples that a strategic approach can pay dividends, but they only tell part of the story. Policy and strategy are fine, but without implementation they are not worth very much. Implementation is arguably the greatest unresolved issue and the most difficult to deliver, because it involves major resources, compliant organisations, dedicated management and appropriately skilled staff.
But can we present a united front on this issue to those we want to influence ? Given that there is no universal agreement within the archives and records community to dealing with electronic records how can we expect to successfully influence other sectoral interests and stake-holders, not to mention policy makers and resource providers ? Institutions and Professional bodies have to work together and reach agreement and develop strategic positions. The ICA and other international bodies, National Professional Associations, National institutions need to work cooperatively and dare I say pro-actively. Resource providers have to be lobbied in order that they might understand that there is even a problem. What if anything does Big G Government know or care about the fate of electronic records ?
Archival and records institutions are operating in an environment where it is no longer possible to continue working in the way we have done in the past. Demands on our resources are increasing while our resource base is decreasing. This pressure has been increasing over a number of years to the extent that it is now critical we review and redesign work practices and services to ensure that the mission of our organisations and its clients' needs are being met with the resources available. We need to work in new and innovative ways, and in many cases change what it is we do. The emerging role of recordkeeping professionals is to define recordkeeping regimes for organisations and their employees, acting as consultants and establishing and monitoring standards, rather than deciding about specific records in specific recordkeeping systems or creating extensive documentation about them.
This process requires a significant cultural change. Archival institutions have not developed and are not geared to meet the challenges posed by electronic records. In the same way that the Horses could not cope with the Tanks in September 1939, archivists brought up in the paper / artefact world are having difficulty coping with the virtual electronic world.
Even the best policy , the best strategy and the best technology for electronic recordkeeping will founder if the human delivery system is faulty in some way. While re-training and re-inventing can improve things to an extent, we have to recognise that the culture of our institutions and our profession is conservative and not readily accepting of change.
The process of re-inventing and re-engineering is potentially anathema to structures and cultures which have developed over centuries in some cases. Institutions whose record priorities are primarily pre-20th Century or are devoted to managing the paper trail will need powerfully convincing arguments to re-orient their priorities toward electronic records or even current records. To embark on the process requires a vision, a focus and level of commitment which goes beyond mere tinkering at the margins. In particular, it involves a fundamental re-examination of the primary purpose for which archival institutions exist and the recognition of the primacy of records as evidence.
Can the archival institution expect its Government clients to change if it is lagging behind ? Archival institutions need to practice what they preach and develop as models for best practice in recordkeeping. In the midst of our headlong rush to develop policies and strategies for whole of Government implementation we must not forget our own immediate environment.
One of the best ways for staff in archival institutions to develop skills and expertise in recordkeeping is to be involved in the process in their own organisations. If staff in archival institutions are not using electronic systems in recordkeeping, then how can they be expected to advise their Government clients on the subject ?
If archival institutions have not taken a strategic approach to their own recordkeeping then what message does that send to archivists about its relative priority.
I went recently to visit a Government agency who asked for advice on electronic records and recordkeeping generally. When asked to give them an example of a best practice agency in the Commonwealth sector I was embarrassed because I couldn't name my own organisation. I doubt this is an isolated example.
Resources devoted to electronic records and recordkeeping policy and implementation within archival institutions has not been commensurate with the task. In many organisations I have encountered, including my own, a very small percentage of people have been assigned to the task.
Now the days are long gone when throwing large resources at any task was either possible or desirable, but from what I can see most if not all institutions devote the lions share of resources to the furthering of traditional activities.
It is a constant criticism from people working in these traditional activities that they aren't getting appropriate training in electronic records or that they don't understand either what the problem is or how to deal with it. If dealing with electronic records and related issues is such a high priority then shifting some resources away from traditional activities might just provide the catalyst for developing an understanding and at the same time getting more done.
The changes in resource levels have also been accompanied by changes in the way all organisations do business, and dramatic changes in the technology and communication methods they employ. Archival institutions need to ensure their service delivery is appropriate to meet agency requirements in this changing environment and to cope with issues such as electronic recordkeeping, out-sourcing, and reductions in the resources agencies can draw upon. Contact with agencies needs to be more focused at middle and senior management to ensure that the importance of accountability and recordkeeping is appreciated and that strategies and systems are put in place to ensure that records are created, kept and remain accessible.
In order to do this for electronic records archival institutions need to work with agencies to:
In order for archival institutions to provide this service it is an essential requirement for staff in archival institutions to understand and cope with changes within their environments and to be able to adapt service delivery to future changes while ensuring that the mission of their organisations is achieved. Broadly the skills required can be categorised within the following framework:
The AS4390 Australian Standard for Records Management defines the records continuum as:
The elements of the records continuum need to be reflected as components in the business strategy for archival institutions in the provision of services to its clients.
To deliver the required services archives staff will need to possess skills, competencies and knowledge of all aspects of the records continuum. Skill set identification can be examined under the following headings:
In addition to archive and records principles and practice staff will need to have an understanding and knowledge of:
None of my emphasis on the strategic is to suggest that there are not technological issues which require research. Here is a list for you to consider. I won't elaborate in detail due to space constraints as I think they are fairly self-evident.
In summary I see the unresolved issues and potential research tasks as follows: