An off-track report

The Electronic Records Policy Working Group's recent report is muddled and flawed, columnist Timothy Sprehe says.

The E-Government Act of 2002 includes the unfortunate expression "government information on the Internet and other electronic records" — a phrase that makes no sense to anybody.

The Electronic Records Policy Working Group has taken this muddled language as a mandate to produce an even more muddled report titled "Barriers to the Effective Management of Government Information on the Internet and Other Electronic Records." The report is available for public comment at www.cio.gov.

To begin, many issues concerning effective management of government information on the Internet have nothing to do with records management. The report entirely ignores those issues, omitting any mention of crucial topics such as controls over who may post information online.

This deficiency aside, the report's central flaw is its uncritical acceptance of the notion that records management in today's distributed computing environment will occur at the desktop PC level, where end users make the decisions.

When end users are the ones to decide what a record is, records management is doomed to chaos. Prohibiting end users from deciding is the best practice in managing electronic records.

The working group's report cites the example of information security. Security experts have learned the value of centrally managing security in a distributed environment.

Because users may refuse to change their system passwords in a timely manner, information technology systems change passwords for users and deny access unless they adopt the new password — a simple and effective fix to a security problem.

Similarly, end users may make poor records management decisions. It's better to set rules to make decisions in the background at the system level.

This is not a simple fix to the electronic records management problem, but it's doable. The working group's report, however, never entertains this option.

Is it unrealistic to centrally manage electronic records in a distributed system? Not one-fiftieth as unrealistic as the report's naive hope that agency officials will invest the funds to train thousands of users in records management. This will not happen in any of our lifetimes.

The group's failure to consider a systemic solution to electronic records management arises from one of the barriers the report correctly identifies: Federal records and IT managers do not know how to communicate with one another.

When records and IT experts work together, they can figure out how to take the end user out of the decision loop by adopting rules carried out at the server level. Some agencies are already doing this, but apparently no one in the working group consulted them.

The group's report demonstrates records managers' confusion over how to implement electronic records management in today's IT environment. One can only hope that the group's future reports will demonstrate a better understanding of the issues.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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