Capturing and preserving authentic and accessible evidence of Government 2.0 (Part Two)
This is the second of two blog posts about what Government 2.0 means for the world of archives, records and information management. I’ve gone back and added a “Part One” to the title of the first post.
Government archives are institutions with split personalities. On the one hand they are heritage and research centres with a strong cultural focus. On the other hand they are key institutions of accountability, integrity and good governance. Archives hold the evidence of public administration (both good and bad). As such, and in the words of Senator John Faulkner, they are the ultimate accountability institutions.
These days archives don’t just sit at the end of the information life cycle and sweep up the detritus of long-forgotten activities and provide them with a safe home – although there are of course times when we are required to do just that. Because good recordkeeping is an essential enabler of efficient and accountable democratic governance, and because archivists have records and information management expertise, today’s archives are active participants in current public administration.
Talking to government agencies about the need to take recordkeeping and information management seriously can often be a thankless task – but it is one that has to be done. It is not just tomorrow’s archives that are at stake here, it is the very foundations of our democratic system of government. The Government 2.0 focus on maximising access to and use of public sector information helps highlight the importance of good information management in government. You cannot make PSI available if you don’t know what you’ve got and your systems and processes are incapable of managing those resources properly. The role of audit and compliance here is also critical and includes both the Australian National Audit Office and the proposed new Office of the Information Commissioner.
Good information management does not just ‘happen’. It requires a supportive organisational culture and it requires the clever design of systems and work processes that can make it easy for the organisation to capture and manage its vital information assets as a natural and organic part of the running of the organisation’s business. Web 2.0 technologies provide both challenges and opportunities in this context. See for instance a book recently published in the UK by Steve Bailey called Crowded Out: Records Management and the Web 2.0 Phenomenon (Facet, 2008). How to capture and preserve dynamic web-based resources as records has been a challenge that has occupied the minds of records professionals for a number of years now – and the spread of blogs and wikis has not made this challenge any easier to resolve.
Success will require collaboration between creating/hosting organisations and archival institutions. Mere web harvesting, while it has a role to play, is no real solution. Indeed treating such resources as static information objects to be preserved is probably the wrong paradigm altogether. A better approach is to abandon object-oriented thinking and instead adopt event-oriented thinking. Users experience the Web (indeed also any digital platform) as a series of event-based interactions or performances. Identifying the important events for which evidence needs to be captured and retained is the key here.
This can be done through a mixture of research and analysis of legal and administrative requirements for records, process analysis, risk analysis and stakeholder consultation where useful and possible. Once you have done that it is a relatively simple matter of designing systems and processes for capturing that evidence together with sufficient metadata documenting the context of these events. All events that are enabled by Web technology, regardless of how dynamic and interactive the wider process might be, generate traces (stings of zeros and ones) that are capable of being captured as records. This kind of thinking is, however, yet to catch on and until it does we will all continue to struggle with making and keeping records of web-based activities in all their various and evolving manifestations.
An interesting resource in this context is a short paper on preserving blogs (PDF – 243k) prepared by Digital Preservation Europe. I am grateful to Mark Brogan of Edith Cowan University for alerting me to this source.
Persistent access to web-based resources is another challenge – not only because the Web places a premium on the currency of information but also because regular changes to the machinery of government and regular overhauls of agency websites mean that URLs are unlikely to persist for more than a year or two. We have all been frustrated by ‘link-rot’, where hyperlinks take you to a non-existent webpage. Various attempts at designing persistent URL resolver services have failed to catch on, so we probably have no choice but to accept link-rot as a fact of life. Ever-changing URLs are bad enough – but the total disappearance of web resources is much worse.
Once again archives and libraries have to collaborate with authoring/publishing agencies to help ensure the persistent availability of government web resources – the essential evidence of online governance in our democracy. If a government agency says something over its website today, citizens whose rights and entitlements can depend on this advice are entitled to expect that information will still be available tomorrow if it ever needs to be referenced, questioned or cited.
The longevity and interoperability over time of digital information resources is of course a major professional concern of archives. The accepted wisdom is to encourage use of open, standards-based file formats and to build and maintain distributed networks of ‘trusted digital repositories’. But that is a whole other topic and I think I have rambled on quite long enough in this blog post.