Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Electronic Records Management at National Archives

National Archives of Australia (NAA) held a Government Agencies Information Network (GAIN) Forum in Canberra this morning. Barbara Berce from NAA began by introducing the GAIN initiative of NAA to communicate to agency staff. As well as face to face presentations, an online forum will be available in the next few weeks.

Barbara then reprised her presentation "From Red Tape and Reticence to Realisation" (from RMAA inForum 2010). She argued there are efficiency benefits from digital work practices and to "... stop living in the paper world".

NAA recently conducted a survey of government agencies. One question was if agencies had a comprehensive digital records management environment, with 30% saying yes, while 40% of the remainder having no plans to do so. Almost half of agencies have primarily paper records. Reasons for this included the difficulty of getting staff to use electronic records. A summary of the survey will be on the new GAIN web site.

Agencies are estimated to have 1,300 shelf kilometres of paper records. Much of this is outdated short term records and copies of records already stored electronically and so could be eliminated. Similar results have been found in the USA (testimony to congress by US government archivist) and New Zealand (archivists annual report).

One driver for change will be new FOI legislation. Agencies which cannot respond to FOIs quickly will have increased costs. Barbara pointed out the community now expects online and interactive access to government. This new information now needs to be retained.

The aim is that capture and disposal of records is automated. This was in "Note for file: A report on recordkeeping in the Australian Public Service" (Management Advisory Committee 8, from 2007). But apart from appropriate software (which is improving) this also requires organisational commitment. One point I disagree with the presentation on is cost. I suggest that better integrated records management could greatly reduce IT costs in agencies, rather than increasing it. As an example, eliminating the use of general purpose "office" software, particularly Microsoft Word, for the creation of documents would greatly reduce costs and also result in better records retention. Using web based software could eliminate most Ms-Word documents. Apart from the saving in licence costs (only about 10% of agency staff would need an actual copy of Ms-Office), this would would reduce storage requirements by 90% with much more efficient document formats used and and processor requirements by about 75%.

Barbara emphasised the cultural change needed. She suggested making the most of what equipment the agency has and considering records management requirements when new systems are acquired. But I suggest a culture change is needed at NAA, from thinking of themselves as being the ultimate repository of old records after they are no longer of use by agencies, to an active participant.

An example of how NAA could take a more active role would be to sponsor an online "cloud" system for smaller agencies. In conjunction with AGIMO a commercial provider would offer a complete system. All data in the system would be held in Australian Government approved facilities, under the control of Australian nationals on Australian territory. A small agency would then just need a credit card to pay for an account on the system, a web browser for each employee using it and a secure link to the cloud system. The agency would not need to purchase any records management or other software, nor run any servers of its own. Such a system could come complete with free open source software for running the basic operations of a government agency, including records management, word processing spreadsheets and email. NAA would then have a showcase for good electronic record practice, as well as an easy solution to the problem of supporting the archive needs of many small, and sometimes short lived, agencies with orphan record formats.

RMAA Canberra Meeting

The NAA meeting was followed by a meeting of the Records Management Association of Australasia (RMAA) Canberra branch Lunch Bag Education Update Seminar. I was invited to stay for the meeting and talk a little about the course COMP7420 "Electronic Data Management" I am designing for ANU.

This was an impromptu talk so I put the course web page up on screen and made these points:
  1. I am not a records management professional, but an IT person who chaired a committee on electronic document management when a public servant. I designed a short intensive course run at ANU (one of my former students was at the RMAA session) and have been teaching records management and metadata to IT and business students.
  2. ANU is the new kid on the block in terms of RM courses. It is not offering a full program at this point, just a couple of subjects (the other is COMP7410: Data Mining and Matching by Dr Peter Christen). These subjects are six weeks (half a standard university unit). The student needs to spend the equivalent of a least one hour a day studying.
  3. Courses can be done one off, or contribute to a certificate, diploma or masers, with courses from across the campus as part of the ANU Graduate Studies Select program.
  4. These courses are based in the Engineering and Computer Science with close ties to the cutting edge of new digital systems. As an example, David Hawking who developed the Funnelkack web search engine used by the Australian Government is an adjunct in the next office. We don't need electronic communications as we can shout through the wall. ;-)
  5. Courses are using advanced e-learning techniques and the most advanced Australian developed software (Moodle).
  6. Assignments will be work based: "wrote a report for your executive on the current practices in your organisation ... make recommendations for improving practices in your organisation.
Apart from being able to promote my coruse to potential students, the RMAA event was very useful as it presented details of the University of Canberra, CIT and other records management and information management courses. One point this made was that RM courses are spread across different disciplines at different universities and even in the one university.
One interesting point was that the NAA also runs courses, which while aimed at the pubic service, are available to the private sector. NAA also has teaching materials and e-learning modules.There was a discussion of professionalism which was similar to the discussions I have had at the ACS. A problem is that records managers are seen as people who push bits of paper around in the basement, rather than their role as information managers.
ps: NAA e-meeting room: Archives have equipped their meeting room with a hi-tech interactive lectern. The computer functions provided are very good, but like many such installations, the ergonomics could be better. The pen operated display screen has been mounted in the centre of a standard sloped lectern surface. There is a cordless mouse and compact keyboard provided. It would be better if the lectern was replaced with a more horozontal surface, with the screen towards the back. This would provide more space for the keyboard and more room for the mouse. The screen could be placed on a shelf with room for the keybaord to be pushed out of the way underneath. A larger, easier to operate keyboard could then be used. But that is a minor quibble and the equipment worked very well.

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