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States step up to the electronic challenge

Oregon’s office of the Secretary of State is six months into the implementation of an electronic records management system (ERMS). And according to Oregon state archivist Mary Beth Herkert, the change is long overdue if state agencies are going to respond effectively to electronic discovery and public document requests.

"In the paper world, we did an OK job of filing, but we rarely got requests because people didn’t want to take six months to wade through boxes and mounds of paper. The risk was the same, but the probability of requests was low," Herkert says. "In the electronic world, the risk is accelerated, but all our bad habits are magnified."

Most Oregon agencies don’t yet have structured electronic filing systems for documents, and having to search through thousands of e-mail files compounds the problem.

"Agencies in our state have gone to court thinking they were clear on what was happening, only to see a smoking gun they didn’t know about," Herkert says. "They are paying penalties, and they are paying people to work full time on e-discovery and public document requests. It shouldn’t be that way. We are in a cycle of constantly responding to requests and litigation."

Recognizing the problem

Oregon is not alone in trying to address how to deal with the explosion of electronically stored information in a more efficient and structured manner.

As more of their business is conducted via e-mail and documents that are "born digital," state and local governments alike are analyzing technology solutions and revisiting document retention policies to cope with public information requests and the discovery of electronic records in litigation.

When NASCIO, the organization of state chief information officers, asked members to list their top 10 priorities for 2009, electronic records management and e-discovery ranked fifth on their list.

As a 2007 NASCIO white paper makes clear, because they are facing increased e-discovery requests, state CIOs are feeling pressure to "find new and innovative ways to store, organize and retrieve electronic information for the state enterprise as a whole. That may include the use of data storage systems, advanced search technologies, and business intelligence and analytical tools."

Previously, IT staff and funding resource restraints put electronic archiving systems on the public sector’s back burner, says Brian Babineau, a senior analyst and practice manager at Enterprise Strategy Group.

"The public sector certainly lags behind the private sector in adoption," he says. "Many have difficulty just managing their e-mail environment, much less having the resources to cope with e-mail archiving or content management solutions. So there is a resource and labor constraint."

Also, the penalties may not be severe enough to jolt state and local agencies into action. "But as in the private sector, when the risk or perceived risk is great enough, they will be able to justify investing in systemic approaches," Babineau adds.

Progress in Oregon

In 2007, an Oregon CIO Council task force recommended that agencies begin work on updatability, portability and integrity of their data. The group also suggested to the state CIO that agencies should only use systems certified to be compliant with DoD 5015.2, a design criteria standard for electronic records management software applications.

Late last year the Oregon Secretary of State’s office began implementing a system called TRIM from Tower Software (since purchased by HP). Herkert says the product search was narrowed because few products were DOD-certified and worked with the agency’s Groupwise e-mail system.

Herkert says TRIM’s ease of use was attractive. The system requires some work upfront setting up classifications for e-mail and documents based on an employee’s role. For instance, the desktop of a purchasing agent might have RFPs, contracts and approvals set up as folders in which to drop documents.

"The key thing we learned is about the change we all have to make as record managers," Herkert says. "It is a change and behavior management issue. It is not going to happen overnight. You have to rewrite policies and procedures and audit for compliance."

Herkert would like other state agencies to join in the Secretary of State’s use of TRIM as funding is made available. "When the funding issues come up, I try to point out to the Legislature how much they are already spending on manpower to have people poring over all that e-mail to determine if it falls under a public request and whether or not it is exempt from disclosure," she says.

Electronic records vault

In December 2007, changes to federal court rules regarding electronic document retention forced the state of Washington to revisit its policies and procedures. A project co-sponsored by the Office of Risk Management and the Department of Information Services led to the creation of the Washington State Electronic Records Vault (WaSERV), which now has 10,000 users across several state agencies.

Based on Symantec’s Enterprise Vault technology, the system includes several tools that help refine document searches. The goal is to allow employees to quickly search across all agency e-mail data more efficiently using advanced search features and e-discovery tools.

The software is customizable, so agencies can set how often e-mail is moved to the vault and what types of e-mail individual users can delete, explains Cammy Webster, assistant director for the Computer Services Division of Washington’s Department of Information Services. "For most users, all they notice is a change in icon on their desktop," she adds.

The project’s managers are in the process of expanding the service beyond e-mail to things like Sharepoint services and documents on agency file servers. "The goal is to get as much relevant content into the vault as possible to make it easier to search through," Webster says.

Getting executive sponsorship on revising retention policies was key to the project’s success, according to Webster. "The danger was that agency leaders would see this as strictly a technology project, when in fact it is a business project," she says. To avoid that pitfall, the Office of Risk Management, convened an educational session for agency public disclosure officers and record retention officers, legal staff and CIOs. Explaining how the archiving technology can help with retrieval for response to public disclosure requests highlighted the beneficial business aspects. "It was important," Webster says, "to bring the business executives and the technologists together."

Minnesota grapples with electronic records

Robert Horton, the director of the Library, Publications and Collections for the Minnesota Historical Society, helped prepare a 2008 report recommending improvements in how the state handles electronically stored information.

The task force was formed in response to a bill that proposed state documents should all be archived in OpenDocument format. (OpenDocument is an open, XML-based file format for electronic office documents, such as text, spreadsheets, charts and other graphical elements.)

"We found we have overlapping and contradictory laws about how to deal with information in Minnesota," Horton explains. "The overall structure was confusing in the paper world, and it got really confusing in the digital world." There were rules and statutes pertaining to data, to records, to documents and to electronic records, and each definition was a little different. "It was not possible to flip a switch and say they should all be stored in a certain format," he says.

The report recommended that state agencies concentrate on archiving the documents that have a high legal profile or involve privacy concerns rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach to the records and e-mail in state agencies.

"There has to be a business rationale involving risk mitigation or fear of litigation for introducing an electronic records management system," Horton says. "I haven’t seen any studies that show the upfront investment in a records management system pays for itself in discovery cost savings."

Minnesota is taking part in the Library of Congress’ National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. The Minnesota Historical Society is leading efforts to develop a model to archive the digital content of the state Legislature—the bills, laws and reports that are being created digitally.

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