Government: The Mirror Image of Information Management

The governor of the great state of Maine, Angus King, often brags about his state’s advanced technology by proudly pointing out that “any Mainer can now buy a fishing license at 3 a.m. in his underwear.” Well, I can tell you that as a citizen of Maine, I am delighted by my state’s accomplishments in technology (and a little repulsed by the mental image).

After years of observing technology in business, it’s sort of odd to look at the ways in which government approaches the subject. For me, it’s like a fun house mirror—a distortion of my usual expectations, but interesting nonetheless.

Government Is Different

“Government has to learn to do more with less,” says The Man. I am writing this on Tax Day, April 15, so I don’t feel very generous to The Man right now. But I AM satisfied that certain legislation (the Freedom of Information Act and the Privacy Act in particular) has ratcheted up the demand on government agencies to manage all communications and documentation with far greater seriousness than ever. The fact that we’re currently in a state of war—with much of the backfighting taking place in the communications systems and electronic transmissions crisscrossing the globe—has certainly upped the ante for increased scrutiny.

And I know that scandals such as Enron and Andersen have focused a spotlight on records management that wasn’t there before. Paper shredding hasn’t had this bad a rap since Watergate.

I suppose that agencies at all levels are feeling the public pressure to provide better service to the electorate. Self-service Web access to simple forms and everyday transactions (such as buying fishing licenses, paying traffic tickets, etc.) has led to longer coffee breaks for civil service workers everywhere.

But in government, as in no other sector, information management is usually a reflexive and defensive act. There is no competitive pressure; after all you can’t decide to take your business to a competing government down the street (no matter what those wackos in the hills of Idaho think).

There IS economic pressure, just like in business. Money’s tight all over. But when a government agency messes up, there’s usually a friendly legislation to vote them back to life. Remember those times when the federal budget was unapproved, and the government was “out of business”? Besides keeping David Letterman going for a while, what real consequence did it have?

The REAL consequence for government agencies is regulation and law. It’s all stick, and little carrot. There are laws that require—mandate—government agencies to dot their “i”s and cross their “t”s. So government views information management though a rather wavy mirror that seems just weird to those of us who live in the private sector. There are two primary forces causing government agencies to create highly automated information repositories and equally transparent means of distributing information out. First is simple efficiencies, and as crabby as I am right now about it, they’ve got a point. A bloated bureaucracy doesn’t play very well anymore. The more citizens who can get their answers online (and feel good about the experience) the better.

“All of our government installations tend to fall into one of two categories,” says Andrew Pery, Chief Marketing Officer and Senior Vice President of Hummingbird. “Gaining efficiency or mitigating risk. Governments are moving toward the electronic delivery of services ... government on-line. They want therefore to create a centralized repository of their knowledge assets, and the ability to manage that effectively is their key interest.”

Then I point out to Andrew that the “customer service” aspect is missing from that equation. “That’s actually very interesting,” he says. “It depends on how you define customer service”

I’m shaking images of Bill Clinton’s videotestimony from my brain as Andrew explains: “In government, service tends to be document-centric: to be able to deliver that agency’s specific information efficiently— say, the revenue side delivering information and forms about e-filing of taxes (damn, I’d almost forgotten) is the ‘equivalent of customer service.’”

And having a centralized repository for the disbursement of forms, policies, manuals, is in some ways driven by the same dual forces of efficiencies gained (internal cost savings) and satisfaction enjoyed (by customers ... or in this case, “the constituency of customers,” as it’s known in this topsy-turvy world).

See what I mean? It’s sort of the same, but undeniably different ... like a fun house mirror.

The Law of E-Mail

The day they invented e-mail, everyone’s life got more complicated. But none so much as the records managers who are tasked with controlling, filing, sorting and providing access to the records of the zillions of transactions that occur every day in business AND government.

“E-mail contains the most recent information and is the up-to-date snapshot of an organization. And many of those e-mails fit the definition of records,” points out Bassam Zarkout, VP Product Management for eManage. “If I make a business commitment to you, whether I e-mail it or print it and send it in the mail is irrelevant. That communication has to be made accessible and auditable according to law.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Records management (and records managers themselves) has taken the upfront position in any organization’s information and knowledge-asset management. No longer do records managers represent the “end of the line” for information.

Records managers in government have a hierarchy of responsibility: to comply with the law demanding that certain types of records are preserved for certain prescribed lengths of time; to protect the interests of the government and its employees by documenting the activities of the particular agency; and increasingly to provide access to information to the public, in response to FOIA requests.

The reassessment of the role of records managers is due, in large part, to the higher public profile of the records themselves. Media attention has mounted, starting a few years ago with the discovery of damning evidence in the e-mail records of certain tobacco company executives, moving through the Microsoft mess and Bill Gates’ own faulty memory (which came rushing back after e-mails were discovered that refuted his testimony), and now beginning to have an impact in the Enron/Andersen investigations.

“Records management used to be on the sideline, not part of the information management vision and strategy. It’s becoming that now,” says Bassam. This change in profile for records managers is met by some records people grudgingly, he says, “but many, many of them have migrated to that vision.”

This consolidation of IT and RM has created the need for education—“they use different terms for the same thing,” Bassam points out—and has led to some interesting new strategies.

Take e-mail, for example. In traditional records management, a “record” (in this case an e-mail) would be first created or received, the business transaction it is associated with would be completed, and at the end of the line, the record of that transaction would be sent along to the RM—where it would be analyzed, assigned a retention policy, stored for the appropriate amount of time, then eventually destroyed.

But the “new” RM recognizes that e-mail as an asset of the organization, not an artifact of an historical event. So the FIRST action that takes place on the e-mail is analysis: “What is this about?” “Who is it addressed to?” “Is it high-priority?” “Is it important to anyone else?”

Next, the e-mail (call it an “active record”) initiates action. It may simply go to the intended person. But it may also trigger a workflow that, in turn, triggers an action that involves many people and processes. Only after it’s determined that no other value can be derived from this active record does it enter its final stage, as a mere “record,” and it lives out its days in a retirement village in Boca playing shuffleboard and watching Christopher Lowell...

Kidding aside, this is an enlightened view of information-asset management, and it places the e-mail—the current snapshot of the activities of the organization—in its rightful front-line position. And it places the records manager at his and her rightful seat at the head of the table.

Are records managers ready to accept this role? “Reality has to prevail,” says Bassam. “The needs are there. I see records management as the hub of knowledge management.” Yet the application of “upfront” analysis of all e-mail (and other) records that enter the organization is mainly confined to the financial industries, Bassam says. At the government level, the decision to submit an e-mail to the records-management system for proper analysis and retention is still mainly left to the individual government worker, he says.

For some reason that doesn’t make me feel any better about that tax check I just cut....

Starting to Get the Picture

Preserving the decision process ... the capture and dissemination of best practices ... automated transactional processes (such as supply chain management) ... automated processes that facilitate the effective management of intellectual content.... All of this sounds familiar. Could government be hearing the gospel according to KM? The common factor is that both private industry and the public sector are looking at ways in which they can “formalize the ways they manage intellectual content" says Hummingbird’s Andrew Pery and focus, through intellectual capital management, “not only on the technology but methodologies, by which organizations can more effectively capture, manage and disseminate intellectual assets.”

What’s interesting is that the technologies at work are the same, even though the end result is very different. In the public sector, applying all that intellectual strength is in the service of process improvement and efficiency. In the private sector, it’s all for productivity and competitive advantage.

And yet ... it’s the same thing! Both sides are using the same tools and attempting to build remarkably similar infrastructures.

“The technology is the enabler,” Hummingbird’s Andrew Pery says. “Whether it’s a policy and procedure document, or an HR application, or a collaborative product development application, it’s just a different context in which it is deployed.” Maybe he should add, “when” it is deployed. Electronic records management will have its ultimate impact when substantially all records are electronic. But to a remarkable degree, the world is still paper-based, as was pointed out to me in a recent Hummingbird White Paper (“Hummingbird Enterprise: Fostering a 360° View of Enterprise Content”). Banks still routinely reference microfiche to check signatures. The majority of the world’s scientific information is microfiche-archived in libraries. The entire US healthcare system runs on paper and faxes—and most state, federal and government agencies are scrambling to implement EIMS systems.

According to Gartner Group less than 50% of all organizations worldwide currently have an enterprise information management, and/or document management system. Recently a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention representative said that it would be four years before a bioterrorism warning system could be implemented because most hospital emergency room reporting systems and labs were paper-based.

The contributors to this white paper are trying to reverse that reality. Each has taken the position that effective management of electronic documents and communications can save money, provide better service and allow the users to exceed all expectations, whether their targets are customers or voters.

There remains a lot of work to be done. There are federal mandates that can drive the adoption of centralized repositories of information and the advanced services that emerge from them; it’s already happening in North America and in certain places abroad. But at the U.S. state level, there is almost no cross-pollination or knowledge transfer that would help one state’s agency pass along crucial information that could speed the adoption. It is left up to the IT professionals and agency heads to figure it all out.

Companies like eManage and Hummingbird and the others who have contributed to this White Paper may have vastly different approaches, but their goals are similar: to provide the tools that can be intelligently applied to make life a little easier for their customers, and ultimately for all of us.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work ... next year’s tax day is just around the corner.

Andy Moore has often been a well-known presence in the emergence of new technologies, from independent telecommunications through networking and information management. Most recently, Moore has been pleased to witness first-hand the decade’s most significant business and organizational revolution: the drive to leverage organizational knowledge assets (documents, records, information and object repositories) and the expertise and skill of the organizations’ knowledge workers in order to create true learning organizations. He can be reached at andy_moore@verizon.net and welcomes feedback and conversation.

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