Friday, May 09, 2008

How Slowly We (Govt) Adapt to Change

From the GAO on e-mail and official records (my comments in italics):

E-mail, because of its nature, presents challenges to records management.
  • First, the information contained in e-mail records is not uniform: it may concern any subject or function and document various types of transactions. As a result, in many cases, decisions on which e-mail messages are records must be made individually. Why make decisions at all?
  • Second, the transmission data associated with an e-mail record--including information about the senders and receivers of messages, the date and time the message was sent, and any attachments to the messages--may be crucial to understanding the context of the record. So keep the whole thing.
  • Third, a given message may be part of an exchange of messages between two or more people within or outside an agency, or even of a string (sometimes branching) of many messages sent and received on a given topic. In such cases, agency staff need to decide which message or messages should be considered records and who is responsible for storing them in a recordkeeping system. Again, why decide anything--keep the whole sequence.
  • Finally, the large number of federal e-mail users and high volume of e-mails increase the management challenge.
Preliminary results of GAO's ongoing review of e-mail records management at four agencies show that not all are meeting the challenges posed by e-mail records. Although the four agencies' e-mail records management policies addressed, with a few exceptions, the regulatory requirements, these requirements were not always met for the senior officials whose e-mail practices were reviewed. Each of the four agencies generally followed a print and file process to preserve e-mail records in paper-based recordkeeping systems, but for about half of the senior officials, e-mail records were not being appropriately identified and preserved in such systems. Print and file makes no sense--electronic is cheaper

Instead, e-mail messages were being retained in e-mail systems that lacked recordkeeping capabilities. (Among other things, a recordkeeping system allows related records to be grouped into classifications according to their business purposes.) Unless they have recordkeeping capabilities, e-mail systems may not permit easy and timely retrieval of groupings of related records or individual records. Gee--I think being able to do a Google search on a body of text is a whole lot better than relying on poorly paid clerks to perform groupings according to a subject scheme that is likely 20 years out of date.

Further, keeping large numbers of record and nonrecord messages in e-mail systems potentially increases the time and effort needed to search for information in response to a business need or an outside inquiry, such as a Freedom of Information Act request. Factors contributing to this practice were the lack of adequate staff support and the volume of e-mail received. In addition, agencies had not ensured that officials and their responsible staff received training in recordkeeping requirements for e-mail. If recordkeeping requirements are not followed, agencies cannot be assured that records, including information essential to protecting the rights of individuals and the federal government, is being adequately identified and preserved.
My comments, and perhaps the emotion, date from some years associated with records management. Records management was part of the rationalization of business (see Alfred Chandler's writings)--creating, processing and filing information. But it rests on the economic fact it was costly to generate a memo (or equivalent piece of paper). You had to have a specialized individual (called a clerk-typist or secretary). She (or sometimes he) had to be able to handle multiple carbon copies for the multiple files, including something called the "official record". The piece of paper had to be routed through levels of bureaucracy until it got to an approving official. Once signed, the copies would be distributed appropriately. But all that's so 20th century.

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