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Capturing and preserving authentic and accessible evidence of Government 2.0 (Part Two)

2009 September 14

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.

3 Responses
  1. 2009 September 15
    Brad Peterson permalink

    It is not entirely true to say that persistent URL resolver services have failed to catch on. Maybe they have failed to catch on in government but this is not the case in the scientific community for example.

    Perhaps the taskforce could consider a whole of government persistent URL service.

  2. 2009 September 22
    asa letourneau permalink

    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.

    Just read a little bit more about Google Wave. Wondering if this type of ‘bundled’ social networking which allows users to replay the events and interactions of real-time collaborations might have something to offer those seeking to capture evidence of event based interactions?

  3. 2010 April 14
    Madeleine Kingston permalink

    Hi Adrian and Team

    Your second paragraph sums up the split personalities of government archives as institutions focused on heritage and research hubs, whilst representing “key institutions of accountability, integrity and good governance.”

    There is no room for sweeping under the carpet evidence that is bad, embarrassing or shown to represent less than optimal decision-making as reflected in policies and regulation.

    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.
    Any blog that refers to Senator John Faulkner’s views of transparency and accountability deserves my attention – even if only to repeat what I have already said in other places

    On 11 April I posted a blog on Gov2 (Report with a plea to Senators Lindsay Tanner and Joseph Ludwig is to approve the recommendations of the Gov2 Taskforce as tabled on 22 December 2009.

    I am a great fan, though I have never met Senator Faulkner and Mia Garlick’s memorable wordless article would get it wrong to call him and others who have inspired me by the mere existence of their published written work, and who have been instrumental in reinforcing my personal values, have succeeded no less in influencing despite being “faceless” to me (see my comments about Mia Garlick’s wordless article The Faceless Bureaucrat and the designer who illustrated the article for which no words were necessary, and which by the way presented the piece in really snazzy colour schemes).

    So without much more ado I quote Senator Faulkner again from his 30 October 2008 Address on Transparency and Accountability Agenda 30 October 2008.

    “Ladies and gentleman

    United States Senator Alan K Simpson once said: “If you have integrity nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity nothing else matters.”

    Transparency ensures appropriate visibility to government actions and the political process. I’ve personally taken the view after many years in both politics and Parliament that there’s no better way to achieve integrity and accountability within government and government transactions than by promoting transparency and openness.

    Australians must be able to know how their government works and have confidence that authority is exercised appropriately.”

    It is those sentiments and observations that I highlighted on Gov2 blog on 11 April (Report #comment-13124 in my plea to in my plea to Senator Lindsay Tanner and Senator Joe Ludwig whilst they consider the implications of the Taskforce’s recommendations in their Final Report.
    see also

    {Etzioni-Halevy, Eva Bureaucracy and Democracy c/f Senator John Faulkner’s Address as above Standards of Ministerial Ethics}.

    Finally I congratulate the Victorian Government for publicly announcing its default position that “all information should be accessible.

    See Colin Ho’s article “Victorian Government 2.0 due this year on February 4th, 2010

    The article was written in relation to the Victorian Parliament’s Inquiry into Improving Access to Victorian Public Sector Information and Data (last updated online 10 March 2010) and refers to the report tabled on 24 June 2009 by the Victorian Parliament’s Economic Development and Infrastructure Committee today tabled a report calling for improved access to Victorian Government information.

    The Committee had been asked to report on the benefits and costs of maximising access to and use of Government information for commercial and non-commercial purposes. The Chair of the Committee, the Hon. Christine Campbell MP said, “Governments are the largest holders of information and opening this up for public use will drive innovation across Victoria.”

    So this is a good start, and an example is on the way from which lessons and methods can be learnt. My view is that processes and procedures used for Web 2 should be consistent throughout the nation.

    As to Gov2 goals, these go deeper than information access, and to the heart of policies that need to be better scrutinized such that effective use may be made of archived and current material; adequate consumption and other data is gathered; and flawed policies can be examined at an early stage before often irretrievable impacts on productivity, social and fiscal infrastructure result.

    I quote from the Speech given by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd Australian Melbourne Institute Conference March 2008:

    “The Government had breathtakingly favourable fiscal and economic conditions, like no other Australian government has had.

    Yet it failed to seize those opportunities.

    Or even, it seems, to grasp them.

    The result of inadequate and poorly targeted investment in skills formation, in innovative capacity, in infrastructure, and in budget management now manifests itself in the skills shortages, infrastructure bottlenecks, and inflation challenge that Australian workers and businesses now well understand.

    Productivity is, in the long term, the key to building a more internationally competitive economy – one that can produce more output from its existing resource base; one that can grow faster without fuelling inflation and consequently, driving up interest rates.
    The need for action on the productivity agenda is clearly underscored by the long downward slide in productivity growth since the late 1990s.”

    Information management through cleverly designed storage and retrieval systems that are user friendly are essential to informed transparent and accountable policy. The multiple roadblocks that can be anticipated in organizational cultures resistant to change or which feel vulnerable to transparency and scrutiny principles. We are all allowed to make mistakes.

    We are all expected to learn from those mistakes, own up to the, correct them and move on. What should not be allowed is cover up practices where things go wrong in the hope that the problems will resolve themselves.

    They normally will not,. Depending on the size of the mistake or implications of flawed decision-making.
    The extraordinary bottle-neck that seems to have characterized many sectors of the public service, despite the sound theory bases that some may outwardly embrace, one has to be prepared to learn from past experience.

    Days begone that cover up poorly conceived approaches and flawed decisions. If we don’t look back at our mistakes, how will we learn? Certainly this must be what many parents say or ought to say their offspring.
    There is a wealth of learning to be obtained from backward glances.

    Robert Shull, deputy director for auto safety and regulatory policy at Public Citizen a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, said his organization and other consumer watchdogs would be keeping close tabs to see if these different proposals amounted to more than simply “opportunistic attempts to avoid real regulation.” To that phrase would like to add “effective transparent policies.”

    There are so many reasons to endorse moves that will embrace government reform through innovative initiatives as the recommended in the Government 2.0 reform proposal – with the aim of “making our public service the world’s best.”

    There is much room for collaboration with partners within and outside government, to look for stitch-in-time option where things may be going wrong, and to identify good ideas that can be collaboratively and transparently considered in the formation of policies and regulations through:

    “closer and more collaborative relationship with their government. Australia has an opportunity to resume its leadership in seizing these opportunities and capturing the resulting social and economic benefits.”(Key Point 2 of Final Report).

    The Report pointed to the importance making changes to leadership, policy and governance in order to

    “shift public sector culture and practice to make government information more accessible and usable; make government more consultative, participatory and transparent; build a culture of online innovation within Government; and promote collaboration across agencies”

    Darren Whitelaw General Manager of Corporate Communication at Victoria’s Department of Justice in his invited Guest Post on 31 December expressed his personal view of the costs of setting up and delivery of Gov2, but he also of the risks of not implementing this existing project with so much potential to develop a more collaborative, inclusive and democratic government. I support that view and all of the recommendations of the Taskforce.

    I have cited the visionary views of David Adams, Peter Shergold, John Faulkner, Roger Wilkins, Eddie Molloy and others on best practice governance and self-regulation.

    In my related blogs on Gov2 on 9 April on “The Faceless Bureaucrat” (comment #12923) and later on “If I Had a Blank Piece of Paper….” (comment # 12945) I discussed Eddie Molloy’s article in the Irish Times (9 April 2010) entitled “Seven things the public service needs to do.”

    Molloy discussed transparent accountability; independent external scrutiny; effective sanctions – accountability with consequences; abandoning the belief in gifted generalists; establishing the managerial role throughout the civil service; restoring the capacity and powers of the civil service to act as a bulwark against reckless political decisions; establishing a full cabinet ministry responsible for public service reform. Molloy believes that reform from within is extremely rare. He refers to the impacts of embedded cultures.

    Overcoming cultural and political barriers to effective reform are I believe amongst the most challenging tasks not just for the Gov2 Project, but for the nitty gritty of public policy management.

    Both Molloy (Irish 9 April 2010) Peter Kell’s have expressed views on “unworkable” or “half-baked” self-regulation” in relation to corporations (see Peter Kell “Keeping the Bastards Honest – Forty Years on National Consumer Congress 2005; Peter Kell Consumers, Risks and Regulation NCC; “Holding Corporations to Account NCC 2007.

    Though Kell was perhaps referring to corporations providing goods and services in a commercial context, I believe the observations are as valid to providers of public services, however they may be structured as incorporated bodies with limited guarantee but without share portfolio. Some examples include regulators like the AER, Rule Makers like the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) (previously NEMCO; the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC); Policy-Makers like the Ministerial Council on Energy (MCE).

    In his brilliant submission to the Gov2 Taskforce Issues Paper Andrae Muys Senior Software Engineer in Metadata and Informatics discusses the Web 2.0 view of even traditional documents as dynamic “living records” with a transparent revision history and “the need for a re-evaluation of the legislative, regulatory, and cultural norms relating to the participation of public servants in the public sphere. Specifically a need to alleviate the unreasonable level of jeopardy they face though participation with Web 2.0.”

    In particular Muys suggests that: “We need to change our perception of the drafting process from a process of drafting and subsequent publication to a process of curation and moderation.”

    Muys recognizes that fear of public criticism may hamper transparency and other Gov2 goals, and recommends that “public servants need to be provided room to fail”, if they are not to be forced into paralysis or subversion of the access policy. To operate successfully Gov 2.0 must accept the existence of errors and implement tight corrective feedback loops seeking a trajectory of increasing accuracy.”

    There are indeed many sensitivities to be overcome and addressing the cultural barriers may represent the most challenging of all tasks. With due care and recognition of the pitfalls these barriers can and should be overcome.

    Regarding licencing options, The Hon Christine Campbell (Victoria has said “Based on the concept of ‘free culture’, Creative Commons provides a consistent and simple set of licensing options that allow the Victorian Government to make materials available for reuse on liberal terms,” I certainly support that view.

    I am very enthusiastic about the openness with which the Gov2 and Web2 projects have been tackled and look forward to active citizen participation in information management, accessibility, transparency and hopefully improved policies and decision-making as a consequence of bringing Australia into the 21st Century and setting benchmarks for service-delivery.

    Organizations wishing to be seen as adopting world best practice need to consider their own reputations and the implications of opting to stay behind. The scope to improve productivity, efficiency, accessible retrievable records and transparency and accountability all in one hit will be enhanced by collaborative efforts to design information management systems that will be user-friendly and flexible enough to deliver changing expectations and needs.

    So again, here’s my personal support for Gov2 and Web2 goals.



    Individual new supporter and blogger

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