Electronic media offer more than space for storage
Records management is a curse on an average webmaster, but it may soon become a major
part of the job of running a Web site.
As agencies come to depend on electronic versions of policies and procedures found on
their own Web sites and those of other agencies, the demand for paper originals will fade.
Most federal agencies simply don't have enough staff to maintain archives of paper copies.
Large cabinet agencies with hundreds of field stations can't afford one or more clerks
at each site with the principal task of organizing policy paper.
Relying on the Web for authoritative documentation is easy and relatively cheap, but
control and integrity of the electronic form of policies becomes a new concern.
Webmasters will need to tighten the chain of custody for documents posted on their
sites. As more official records appear on Web sites, keepers of the sites will have to
limit privileges to those with the right to change them.
And when documents come off the Web site, they must carefully move along a
pre-established disposition schedule.
As I noted in my last column, Charles R. McClure of Syracuse University and J. Timothy
Sprehe of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington have completed a
study titled Analysis and Development of Model Quality Guidelines for Electronic
Records Management on State and Federal Web Sites.
Sponsored by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, their report
is available at http://istweb.syr.edu/~mcclure/.
On April 22, McClure and Sprehe will conduct a conference, "Solving Electronic
Records Management Issues for Government Web sites: Policies, Practices and
Strategies" in Washington.
As for archiving, McClure and Sprehe assert that putting records on your Web site and
then backing up the site is absolutely insufficient as a solution to agency
record-keeping. Although accurate with respect to current policy, I believe this position
will be proven wrong.
In fact, Web sites--or, more correctly, systems of Web sites--may soon be the
foundation for agencies' record-keeping. Unless we abandon Internet technology and
information technologies, more agency actions will be committed to electrons rather than
Even paper documents will be converted to electronic media so that a coherent
electronic archive can be created and used simultaneously by any interested users.
Besides, paper doesn't allow full text indexing and searches, provide hyperlinks to
related documents and files, or support access from anywhere in the world. It can't do
computer-assisted quantitative and qualitative analysis.
The potential for authentication and nonrepudiation of electronic documents goes far
beyond what the Postal Service can provide for paper.
With a few strokes on a keyboard, managers can search the files of an entire agency in
seconds; the equivalent paper process takes weeks.
With a competent electronic archival system, users can reconstruct documentation for a
date. Historians and librarians will have a comprehensive snapshot of an agency's
collected wisdom--or folly.
Furthermore, users will be able to second-guess decision-makers with all sorts of
analytical tools--some yet to be developed. Our descendants will know just how incomplete
and myopic our insights and decisions really were.
We have challenges to conquer before this vision can be realized. The cachet of the
agency domain name provides the first, and unfortunately often the only, level of
authentication for Web documents.
The federal government will need to implement a public key infrastructure, preferably
one that private industry is willing to support.
Moreover, we will need better tools for documenting the custody and online maintenance
of electronic documents. We must be able to determine with certainty who did what to a
We will get there, thanks to a number of efforts to achieve standards. But even with
today's primitive tools, I am far better able to manage electronic information than paper.
Because the Web site is exposed to agency employees and the public, viewers
increasingly will come to accept its contents as the official truth, for lack of a better
phrase. Soon this aura of authority will compel us to adapt our record-keeping systems to
the Web rather than the reverse.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.